Following the nightmare at Sandy Hook Elementary School, it became clear that the shooter in Newtown, Conn., suffered from mental illness. The same cannot be said of the vast majority of gun deaths in America. In Detroit, Chicago, New York City, all across the country, predominately young, minority men are killing each other by the thousands. And the deaths have nothing to do with mental illness. Their genesis lies in the economic inequality of our society.
The United States was once a country where any citizen who worked hard and had a little luck could succeed. Free-market capitalism meant that you had a chance to achieve or fail on your own. The country was built by risk takers: railroad tycoons, automobile visionaries, technology entrepreneurs and hamburger vendors. These men, and increasingly women, grew wealthy by achieving something larger than themselves. Money was a goal, but it was not the only one.
In Ayn Rand’s seminal work “Atlas Shrugged,” the heroes are people who have accomplished great things by seeking to better their product or service to prevail against their competition. It is telling that among them there is not one investment banker. Ayn Rand believed America was the land of opportunity. Hailing from Europe, she knew all too well what can happen when the state becomes too large.
In the U.S. today, the state and the financial system are one and the same. Together, they operate a cartel that, by any reasonable measure, is illegal. And they seek to bar entry by any but their own. Obscene salaries are tolerated by boards that are paid to look the other way. Taxpayer money is handed out like Halloween candy while those at the lowest rung of the ladder watch their savings go up in smoke in service of low-interest rates. The country piles on more and more debt to placate the disaffected while providing succor to the money changers.
The gap between the highest-paid citizens and the lowest has never been greater. Occasionally, Congress or the president will toss an increase in the minimum wage or other such bone to the poor. But Americans do not need more handouts. We have already created a permanent underclass. What most people who struggle want is a chance to compete on a level playing field where the same rules apply to everyone. Free-market capitalism only works when the winners and losers are decided in the marketplace. When the government chooses them, unintended consequences are a certainty.
How does a parent teach their poor, hard-working child with potential to play by the rules when all around them are bankers getting rich off the failures of others, politicians lining their pockets, and CEOs and government officials lying? And the doors to opportunity are locked. Should we really be surprised when this child concludes that there simply aren’t any rules?
In Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment,” the main character Raskolnikov comes to the conclusion that some men are above the law. Fervently wanting to be one of those men, he commits murder. Among the many questions posed by this extraordinary work is: to what extent does society contribute to the corruption of the individual? The madness that caused the tragedy in Newtown may forever be beyond our understanding; the killings on our city streets all across this country are not.
Until we learn that our system only works when the rules apply equally to everyone, the carnage in our communities will continue to haunt us. •