I’m old, so people ask, “When are you going to retire?” By now the question is faintly irritating, but the first time I heard it and mused on the implications, some memories awakened:
Responding first — and alone — to a grass fire and nearly tripping over an elderly woman engulfed in flame with a rubber boot melted to her leg.
Pulling into a rural address on an icy December night to find an attached two-stall garage bursting with fire, two vehicles burning inside and vinyl siding sagging off the gable of the house. Thinking the place is a goner, then facing the owner — bandaged after recent surgery — standing forlornly in the snow and imploring me, “Please save my home.”
In choppy water off the Florida Gulf Coast in the wake of Hurricane Ivan, boots slung around my neck as I ease over the gunwale of a Boston Whaler into the surf, wading ashore on Santa Rosa Island, scaling the sea wall and being startled by a dead rattlesnake. Then surveying the stunning devastation beyond the serpent and wondering how to begin.
High over the remorseless crags and unbroken forest canopy of the Bitterroot Mountains in north Idaho, riding a helicopter running low on fuel, and recognizing — again — the utter neutrality of bad luck.
And so on etcetera over the course of 37 years.
“When are you going to retire?”
I answer truthfully, “Don’t know.” One person added, “You should, you’ve earned it.” Well, have I now? Earned it? Maybe, but consider the definition.
From the American Heritage College Dictionary: earn: 1. to gain, esp. for the performance of service, labor, or work. 2. to acquire or deserve as a result of effort or action …. Synonyms: earn, deserve, merit, rate, win. The central meaning shared by these verbs is “to gain as a result of one’s behavior or effort.”
In our culture, the idea of “earning a living” is an axiom entrenched to bedrock. But can you live without earning? Without deserving? Without merit? Is there unearned livelihood? If “earning a living” is good, is unearned gain bad? If you don’t earn or deserve a living, should you be dead? That is the implied message of libertarian, laissez-faire capitalism, and likely a reason we’ve never implemented it.
The chief modern polemicist for capitalism was the late author and philosopher Ayn Rand — still in print, still a political force. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan is a big fan. Capitalism was not merely an economic system for Rand and her acolytes, but a social and moral means to organize the entire human enterprise. In “Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal,” she, Alan Greenspan and Nathaniel Branden laid out their creed. It was based on three assumptions. One was that people make rational and consistent decisions about their lives, including personal economics. Another was that markets are infallible — that all those people making rational decisions would drive markets to perfection, not only for goods and services, but also for ideas. Recognizing that their libertarian approach would generate economic inequality, wide gulfs between the haves and the have-nots (or the have-less), capitalists also assumed no limits to growth. The forever-rising flood of prosperity would boost all boats and assuage the resentment the lower classes harbored toward the rich. A corollary of “no limits” was that capitalism would not recognize the “commons,” and there was no such thing as a public interest. Any form of altruism — public or private — was considered degenerate and self-defeating, so the social-moral capitalistic ideal was also atheistic. All this was too bitter a brew for most people, and we’ve ended up with the mixed economy that Rand despised. Unfortunately, despite how our society actually operates, large segments of the population cling to capitalism’s foundational myths, pretending to desire an unregulated economy.
At the core of capitalism is a bias for the strong — and the privileged. After Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” appeared in 1859, capitalist champions co-opted the biological phrase “survival of the fittest” as an economic/moral principle. British philosopher Herbert Spencer mocked altruism: “The ultimate result of shielding men from the effects of folly is to fill the world with fools.” A biting bon mot to warm the libertarian heart, but neglecting the fact that a fool’s folly often ensnares the wise. For example, our society sees fit to severely penalize and restrict drunken drivers — not out of cuddly concern for the alcohol-impaired, but in a worthy attempt to protect the sober. We do share a public interest.
In our era of 7-plus billion humans and climate change, there also certainly exists a commons. A reason some business interests resist the concept of human-caused global warming — even branding it a hoax — is that they grasp the implications for capitalism. We all share the water, air, soil and climate that are the source of wealth, but did not tally them into the balance sheets. Our prosperity has been borrowed from the commons and heavily subsidized by assigning little or no monetary value to the atmosphere, the hydrological cycle, keystone species, etc. Payment is due. Journalist Naomi Klein has written that “ … when climate change deniers claim that global warming is a plot to redistribute wealth, it’s because they are paying attention.”
Under many circumstances, we simply need to take care of each other. Social Security and Medicare, for example, crucial components of our personal and national economies and inviolable tenets of our culture, are fruits of socialism and the mixed economy. How many citizens — if any — would trade those safety nets for the vagaries of the marketplace? As physicist Amory Lovins wrote: “Economies are supposed to serve human ends. We forget at our peril that markets make a good servant, a bad master, and a worse religion.”
So after 37 years working in the fire service — for government and the public interest — what have I earned? What do I deserve? I submit the calculation begins at birth. I arrived as a healthy white male in 1950s America. That fact, as social science data demonstrate, determined most of my future status and income. I was born on second base, but was told I’d hit a double. Our family was — then, at least — lower middle class, and I automatically benefited from an excellent public school education that paved the way to a college degree. By luck, my illnesses and injuries were minor, and I also grew to 6-foot-3. Yes, I can claim diligence, but I received gifts of race, gender, health and geography that significantly magnified any effort I expended. Truth is, I could’ve done a lot less and still “made it.” I’m not disrespecting effort, education, responsibility or skill. All are needful behaviors, but without lucky privilege, they may not carry an individual very far. In the U.S., for example, a black male, a Native American female, a Mexican immigrant or a disabled white male may easily end up in poverty, prison or the morgue while exerting the same diligence (or more) than I did. President John F. Kennedy once noted, “Life is unfair.” Yes, but there is a pattern. Life is more unfair to some than to others, depending largely upon circumstances of birth.
That is the core flaw of laissez-faire capitalism: The playing field is not level and likely never will be. Allowances must be made — not merely in the cause of fairness, but to preserve the integrity of a complex, pluralistic society. History shows that glaring inequalities and neglect of the public interest eventually lead to bloody conflict. A key purpose of representative government is to spare the blood by spreading the wealth. That is also unfair, but the far lesser evil.
So what do I deserve? That is determined by others — politicians, voters, taxpayers, bureaucrats, union negotiators. Society and government solve that equation, and it’s often messy. I’d be lying if I said I was always happy with that, but what is the alternative? Any system of economics, government or philosophy that ignores inherent privileges is bound to fail. Two cheers for the mixed economy. We continue to muddle through. That is our lot. We compete and cooperate; we flow with market forces and fight market forces; we value the individual and devote billions to communal needs; we fence private property and treasure national parks.
In the end, regardless of our isms, we earn what fate, the biosphere and other people give us.
Peter M. Leschak, of Side Lake, Minn., is a 37-year fire service veteran, both wildland and municipal, and author of “Ghosts of the Fireground” and other books. The opinions expressed here are solely his own.