The Origins of Discontent

(This was originally published as an Op-Ed in the Jewish Press, November 11, 2011.)

It is difficult to remember the last time that the United States was wracked with such dissension, discontent, protests, and economic hardship. From my vantage point, “Occupy Wall Street” has been primarily a source of comic relief – the participants, their complaints, their solutions, and their antics – except for the sporadic violence, and the loss of job and business in lower Manhattan caused by the unwillingness of sane people to traverse that area under siege. There are many different forces at play in these nationwide protests,
most without any clue as to how to improve their personal financial situations
or the national economy. Having occupied Wall Street, the occupiers do not seem to know what they want to do with it.

But there is discontent among the wealthy as well, who are being demonized for the most crass political purposes and who have lost much of their wealth in the last few years (from 2007 to 2009, there was a 40% drop in the number of millionaires filing federal tax returns, from 392,000 to 233,000), and among the middle class, who have seen their assets diminished, and found near-insurmountable obstacles to their pursuit of the American dream. Everyone is unhappy.
And the more government meddles in our lives, the worse and less free
our lives become. All this discontent is the fruit of the poisonous tree of
big, intrusive government trying to run every aspect of our lives – and failing
at all of it: telling us what we can eat, what we can drive, what types of
bulbs we can use, how much water the shower nozzle can dispense, how high our fences can be, how many miles per gallon our cars should provide, what types of medical procedures we should or should not have, etc. There are many who expect and want government to satisfy their every desire and care for their every need – to be given a job, a home, health care, retirement pay, and a host of other entitlements. I want none of that. I just want to be left alone.

America was founded on the premise of the right of the individual to
pursue happiness as he sees fit – as long as his pursuit does not encroach on
the rights of others. So a federal government should provide for the common
defense against external enemies, enforce contracts so the commercial system
remains viable, and build interstate roads and highways. Beyond that, I
struggle to find where a federal government is useful or effective, and I
resent that the fruit of my labor is confiscated to pay for useless, frivolous,
unneeded and unwarranted boondoggles. I just want to be left alone.

Consider how far we have traveled. In 1887, Texas was stricken by a
drought (just like this past year). Congress appropriated $10,000 to purchase
seed grain for the suffering farmers there. President Grover Cleveland (the
only president born in New Jersey) vetoed the bill, saying: “I can find no warrant for such an appropriation in the Constitution, and I do not believe that the power and duty of the general government ought to be extended to the relief of individual suffering which is in no manner properly related to the public service or benefit. … The friendliness and charity of our countrymen can always be relied upon to relieve their fellow-citizens in misfortune. Federal aid in such cases encourages the expectation of paternal care on the part of the government and weakens the sturdiness of our national character, while it prevents the indulgence among our people of that kindly sentiment and conduct which strengthens the bonds of a common brotherhood.

The lessons of paternalism ought to be unlearned and the better lesson
taught that while the people should patriotically and cheerfully support their
Government its functions do not include the support of the people.”

     Notwithstanding that those sentiments (and undoubtedly other reasons as
well) led to Cleveland’s defeat in 1888 – he was re-elected four years later –
those lessons of the dangers of “paternalism” need to be re-learned and
re-internalized. Part of America’s greatness in the 20th century was
built on the labor of millions of immigrants – including more than two million
Jews – who arrived on these shores and looked not to government for a handout but to their relatives, neighbors, and co-religionists for temporary assistance until they could support themselves by the sweat of their brow. Hard work, self-sacrifice, material deprivation and personal responsibility were the norms of life. It was expected that people would succeed or fail on their own, and therefore everyone had an interest in succeeding. There was no governmental safety net, and the safety net that did exist for the elderly and infirm was usually provided by family and religious institutions.

The Constitution does not allow government to confiscate money from the productive and distribute it to the unproductive or the clueless – whether the clueless are reckless individuals or reckless corporations. But today, that is the primary function of government, and so 49% of Americans receive some form of government assistance and wayward, mismanaged corporations are bailed out to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars rather than allow the market to take its natural toll on unprofitable businesses. Blame Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt, and then almost every president since then, who have all realized that there are electoral victories to be obtained by handing out money to as many groups and individuals as is feasible. And, frankly, blame the citizenry as well, people who are being weaned on getting something for nothing, and letting others work and prosper and then thinking that it is fair and just that their work product be redistributed to them. It was Thomas Jefferson who wrote that democracy fails the moment the majority realizes that it can vote itself money out of the treasury. We have arrived at that moment, and the national character, accustomed to handouts and bailouts, has been concomitantly weakened to its current flaccid state of disgruntlement and self-pity.

The two visions of America – the free enterprise state that allows the individual free choice in pursuit of his happiness vs. the nanny state that is paternalistic, intrusive and demanding – can easily be discerned by the one defining difference: the former sees each person as an individual (created in the divine image) and the latter sees man as simply part of a collective whose rights are drawn from the fact that he is part of a group but do not inhere in him. America and the free world used to celebrate the role of the individual – encouraging it, fostering it – because no individual prospers without also benefiting others. No individual can become wealthy unless he makes a product or provides a service that others want at a price they can afford. So, everyone benefits. Now, it is one size fits all – like the housing in socialist societies that all looks the same, and like the clothing in old Communist China where everyone dressed the same. No individuality is tolerated. Rights are awarded to some individuals, and denied to others, because they belong to a particular group – the very premise of affirmative action, for example.

Similarly, these attitudes engender the populist complaints about income inequality – the rich are too rich, and the poor are too poor. Why does the income gap, which so exercises the Occupy World Street crowd and other anarchists, bother anyone? If everyone has – or can have – then why be troubled by the success of some?       Indeed, a study not long ago showed that people are happier if they are earning $25,000 and their neighbor $50,000 – than if the sums are doubled and they earn $50,000 and their neighbors earn $100,000. Why? Although the income gap has widened, they too are earning more money?     For only one reason, that greases the wheels of much of the discontent in America and across the globe today: jealousy. What a deadly mida! Envy ruins lives, leaves people dejected and despondent, and is the cause of wars and much suffering.

Envy is the very  antithesis of Succot. Rav Dessler writes famously that Succot reflects bitul hayesh, the nullification of the material. Has anyone ever walked into someone’s Succa and said: “This is beautiful – I am so jealous, I wish I had a Succa like this!” Of course not. And why not? Because it is gone in a week, and is therefore defined as a temporary dwelling. But that is the point –
everything in this world is temporary, so why be jealous? Why covet what
someone else has?

The Gemara Avoda Zara 3a-b states that in the future the nations of the world will be tested with the mitzvah of Succot. The nations are easily inflamed, and much of what they accomplish is triggered by jealousy. So G-d burns the sun
on them as if it is the height of summer – the sun, which to us appears to be
the most permanent fixture of the physical world. And they kick their Succot on
the way out, as if to say, the only reality is the material world, of
substance, and mergers and acquisitions – so why waste time and energy on
anything that is temporary and cannot stoke our competitive juices like the
Succa?

If that regression will happen in the future, as the Gemara says, the good news is that that future is already here. And it is fostered by a heavy-handed government that speaks of charity and generosity as disguises for outright theft. Trillions of dollars spent in a war on poverty has created more poverty – not less. The poverty rate has increased since the war on poverty began, as well as fostered a cycle of multi-generational welfare dependency and a surfeit of broken homes.
For Jews, we perceive the material as temporary and tangential to life, and
look to G-d as the only true source of our rights and values.     To us, life is blissful when, as in the time of King Shlomo, “Yehuda and Yisrael dwelled in security, each person beneath his vine and his fig tree”(I Melachim 5:5) – each person content, satisfied and comfortable with himself and his neighbors, free of the burdens of jealousy and greed.

It is hard for a thinking Jew to generate much sympathy for the “demonize the rich” populism, for a number of reasons, but especially because the Torah seems to like the rich (the Torah likes the poor too). It is one of the defining, oft-repeated themes of Avraham’s life – and maybe a great nisayon as well. The Torah sees fit to emphasize that Avraham does not only leave Charan with his wife and nephew, but also “with all the wealth they had amassed.” And he does well in Egypt – “laden, very heavy, with cattle, silver and gold,” Strange words – kaved me’od, not that he was wealthy, ashir, but kaved, heavy. Wealth can be a burden as well.

And Avraham rejects the gifts of the king of Sodom, so “you shouldn’t say, ‘I made Avraham rich.’” And the Torah underscores that both Yitzchak and Yaakov (and Moshe) were wealthy, all of which gave them credibility with their contemporaries. In the most far-reaching comment, Avraham is told that his descendants would be enslaved in a land not theirs for 400 years, “after which they will leave with great wealth.” But why is this important ? And why does the Torah speak of wealth of our ancestors again and again?

Avraham’s wealth was purposeful. It was designed to bring him respect from his peers, and enable him to better promote his divine message. He was completely focused on advancing Hashem’s agenda, and on realizing spiritual goals. Why should that be demonized? We need not – and should not – succumb to materialistic excess. It is unnecessary, beneath our dignity, and the result of environmental influences that we should strive to keep out of our lives. We know how to live – but we also know how to use our money to build Torah and shuls and yeshivot and mikvaot. We know how to help the indigent, and we know how to support Israel.

Wealth is a challenge but it need not be a curse, or somehow ignominious as today’s malcontents would want us to believe. Wealth is a “blessing from Hashem (Mishlei 10:22), so it is to be used judiciously, wisely and productively. We don’t always succeed, but we do succeed much more than people tend to think. Wealth is therefore a great test, and our use of our bounty is usually a very keen indicator of our moral aspirations and the state of our character. Prioritizing Torah education and the performance of Mitzvot is obviously a more effective and rewarding use of our bounty than is the relentless pursuit of more stuff – houses, cars, fancy gadgets and clothing, and extravagant affairs.

That is why none of the complaints and antics of these American protesters resonate with me. They choose not to see the hard work, the sacrifices, the risks and even the re-distribution wrought by the wealthy consumer (a person who buys a private jet supports a number of people who built that private jet). All they see is mass consumption, all they see is materialistic excess – and they just want it for themselves, without having to work for it. They should learn the lesson of Succot, and we should strive to embody the values and vision of the Avot.

If we choose poorly, then wealth can corrupt us as well, and we can go down the path of Lot, Avraham’s neer-do-well nephew, who was literally destroyed by his worldly ambitions. But if we choose more wisely, then the legacy of the Avot is ours, and our example to the rest of society as to the divine values of personal
responsibility, individual morality, the appropriate utilization of resources
and generosity can be profound. It was for that reason that G-d chose Avraham,
and blessed his offspring with that eternal mandate to the nations of the
world.

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4 responses to “The Origins of Discontent

  1. “So a federal government should provide for the common
    defense against external enemies, enforce contracts so the commercial system
    remains viable, and build interstate roads and highways. Beyond that, I
    struggle to find where a federal government is useful or effective, and I
    resent that the fruit of my labor is confiscated to pay for useless, frivolous,
    unneeded and unwarranted boondoggles.”

    What about national parks? Environmental regulations necessary to reduce pollution and contamination of natural resources? Government subsidies for special education programs (that, mind you, many Orthodox households benefit from)? Banking and financial regulation? Agencies enforcing criminal and civil laws (DOJ, SEC, etc.)? Workplace safety regulations? And the list goes on.

    I agree that government waste needs to be cut drastically, but let’s be realistic –
    limiting the federal government to the three areas you note above is just ridiculous.

    And why are you so up in arms about the “fruit of your labor” being “confiscated”? You’re a clergyman – you get tax deductions up the wazoo. You probably pay at least one-third less (proportionately) than the rest of us.

  2. No, no, and no. All should be state interests, not federal and consumers should penalize offending companies who pollute. Banking/financial regulations, angencies enforcing laws, all fall under the category of enforcing contracts. Read more carefully.
    And you greatly overestimate the capacity of my wazoo, or are simply unaware of the reality of the tax code. Besides, a nickel of my money wasted is a nickel of my money wasted.
    -RSP

  3. Fine. But with all their added responsibilities, the states will need additional revenue (read: taxes). You can shift these functions around all you like, but the money will still have to come from somewhere…

  4. But people have the choice to live in a state with full services, and to pay for them, and the ability to move from a state with onerous taxes (California, NJ, NY) to a more pleasant, less intrusive one (Texas, Arizona, Florida, etc.).
    Guess what ? That is exactly what has happened, and sent Cal to near bankruptcy. Last week’s WSJ: since 2007, more than 4,000 millionaires have fled NJ. Net loss to the budget: four billion dollars.
    And people can exercise greater control over local expenditures that they can over national ones. All politics is local.
    -RSP