Wednesday, September 14, 2011

limited good

* A couple sentences tweaked 12:44am September 14, 2011

This essay by Christopher Newfield (Remaking the University; Unmaking the Public University) has stuck with me since I first encountered it in early August, in the throes of the debt ceiling "crisis." Especially this paragraph:
In reality, our extreme inequality is extremely unpopular, nearly as much on the right as on the left. But once the banana republic has been established, low taxes make individual sense, and in the U.S. they function as a kind of political booby prize. With the stock and housing booms over, most people feel they can't increase their own incomes through known legal means, and since virtually no one thinks they can make America more egalitarian, low taxes on our modest incomes can look like the next best thing.
Newfield's insight here reminds me of the concept of "limited good," which I learned in a weirdly old-fashioned, out-of-touch Anthropology course in college. LG is a world view ascribed by Western anthropologists to non-industrialized societies, as Wikipedia helpfully explains:
The term limited good is a concept from anthropology describing the theory commonly held in traditional societies, that there is a limited amount of "good" to go around. In other words, the amount of good luck, money, etc. available is held to be finite, so every time one person profits, another loses. Societies that subscribe to this philosophy tend to display strong levels of equality among members and to be strongly resistant to social change.
The term was coined by George M. Foster in his 1965 article, Peasant Society and the Image of Limited Good, "American Anthropologist." [Original punctuation and syntax - i.e., don't blame me!] The concept has been described by [Tim] Allen as the rural counterpart of the culture of poverty. The Mexican peasants (in Tzintzuntzan, Michoacán) Foster studied were seen by him to lack interest in new opportunities because of their perception of the word as a "competitive game." This led to a high level of distrust and envy and fragile and constantly shifting patterns of alignment.
This seems to me an ironically, uncannily prophetic description of Tea Party America: A "traditional society" "resistant to social change," beset by record poverty rates and a "see no evil" political culture. Thus goes the right-wing self-destruct pact: with so little hope of making America more egalitarian, let's make sure it's as unequal as possible. If we can't have equality, then no one can.