ERNEST HEMINGWAY: I am getting to know the rich.
MARY COLUM: I think you’ll find the only difference between the rich and other people is that the rich have more money.
Irish literary critic Mary Colum was mistaken. Greater net worth is not the only way the rich differ from the rest of us—at least not in a corporatist economy. More important is influence and access to power, the ability to subordinate regular people to larger-than-human-scale organizations, political and corporate, beyond their control.
To be sure, money can buy that access, but only in certain institutional settings. In a society where state and economy were separate (assuming that’s even conceptually possible), or better yet in a stateless society, wealth would not pose the sort of threat it poses in our corporatist (as opposed to a decentralized free-market) system.
Adam Smith famously wrote in The Wealth of Nations that “[p]eople of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.” Much less famously, he continued: “It is impossible indeed to prevent such meetings, by any law which either could be executed, or would be consistent with liberty or justice. But though the law cannot hinder people of the same trade from sometimes assembling together, it ought to do nothing to facilitate such assemblies; much less to render them necessary.”
The fact is, in the corporate state government indeed facilitates “conspiracies” against the public that could not otherwise take place. What’s more, because of this facilitation, it is reasonable to think the disparity in incomes that naturally arises by virtue of differences among human beings is dramatically exaggerated. We can identify several sources of this unnatural wealth accumulation.
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