The Rationalization of Inequality

The Medieval church became the most dominant institution in western Europe. It was one of the largest landowners of the time and collected rents and many fees for offices and services. The church did not pay taxes. The top down structure facilitated control of information and the creation of wealth, ultimately ensuring the abuse of power. In Passion of the Western Mind, Richard Tarnas identifies the change from medieval era to the modern character, the modern mind required a systematically critical independence of judgment. Tarnas described the process as, “The modern emergence of autonomous personal judgment, prototypically incarnated in Luther, Galileo, and Descartes, made increasingly impossible the continuation of the medieval era’s virtually universal intellectual deference to external authorities, such as the Church and Aristotle, that had been culturally empowered by tradition.”1

Only with credit, which he had to repay with income from the sale of indulgences by the preacher Tetzel, had Albert of Mainz, one of the Imperial Electors, been able to buy himself worldly and church offices. These activities triggered Luther’s 95 theses and call for reform in 1517. Opposition to Luther’s ideas initially was due to the impact on Fuggers’ investments and Albert’s cash flow. The Medieval church’s efforts to suppress heretics had less to do with spirituality and everything to do with social and political control. In less than 50 years after Luther posted his 95 theses  against indulgences on the church door in Wittenberg, Protestant reformers had established original systems of Christian doctrine and new churches in opposition to the Church of Rome.

With his newly developed telescope, Galileo (1564-1642) made observations that supported the Copernican theory (movement of earth around the sun) which raised questions about the Aristotelian and Ptolemaic view (sun rotates around the earth) of the universe. These ideas were opposed because they undermined the power and authority of the Catholic Church. Isaac Newton’s studies of gravitation established the Copernican theory of the Earth revolving around the sun, introduced to the West the concept of mankind as the center of the universe, establishing individualism as a core value of society.

Aristotle’s followers accepted every word of his writings, or at least every word that did not contradict the Bible as eternal truth. Fused and reconciled with the Christian doctrine into a philosophical system known as scholasticism, Aristotle’s ideas were used to support the interpretations of the Scriptures. Descartes, a mathematician and philosopher, most famous for his writing, Meditations on First Philosophy in 1641, presented ideas that laid the groundwork for science through developing skeptical questions concerning the possibility of knowledge. The substance of his principles destroyed the principles of Aristotle.

The deregulation and minimal role for government has been ‘culturally empowered’ since the 1970s through the universal intellectual deference to external authorities such as Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman and Ayn Rand. Their followers accept unquestioningly every word of their writings that support laissez faire economics. Friedrich Hayek claimed laws are to protect the liberty of the individual, even though it created a system with built-in inequality. Milton Friedman, the champion of the trickle down economics – the laissez-faire economic system helps poor people by the trickle down effect in which economic growth flows down from the top to the bottom indirectly benefiting those who do not directly benefit from the policy changes. This economic theory advocates letting businesses flourish, since their profits will ultimately trickle down to lower-income individuals and the rest of the economy. Ayn Rand developed objectivism as the blending of free markets, reason, and individualism. What the theories of Hayek, Friedman and Rand shared in common is a belief in rational self-interest.

Rationalists are free to theorize anything they want without such irritating constricts as facts, statistics, data, history or experimental confirmation. Claims of objectivity can be considered a means of presenting one’s own ideology as a screen for established facts. The problem with rationalism is that it tends to leave out the facts. Reality is complex and has many facets that one must connect to form knowledge.  Beliefs and new ideas must be met with questioning and skepticism to prevent them from becoming dogma.2

In the 21st century, the top down economic system of control is about cheap money and power staying concentrated with a small group at the top of the economic pyramid. Trickle down economics links the welfare of the working class directly to the prosperity of the rich, protecting the interests of the few at the top of the economic pyramid. Occupy Wall Street protesters challenge the ideas of trickle down economics that have been  culturally empowered  by universal deference to Hayek, Friedman and Rand, and point out trickle down economics is about the flow of money – about more and more money flowing up the pyramid to the few at the top; the data establishes that neither social mobility nor growth of the middle class are supported by this economic theory, and that scientific facts destroy an economic theory with a core component based on the rationalization of inequality. (The system is associated with increased economic inequality – the lower the top marginal rates go, the bigger the share of national income that goes to the top 0.1% of wage earners.)

1Tarnas, Richard. The Passion of the Western Mind (p 320)

2 Horsman, Greg Objectivism Lost and an Age of Disillusionment (p 132)

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