For most people, the definition of the Good Life™ is easy – you play by the Rules and get ahead. Some people prefer to break the Rules and get ahead on their own terms. Some of us, however, stand off to the side a little bit and wonder just what these “Rules” are and who was involved in creating them. Barataria, true to its name as the home to Gentleman Pirate, Jean Lafitte, has been attracting a lot of the third group lately.
Let’s try a thought experiment. Say you live in the Caribbean in the 1700s, and as a good Christian you think that piracy is wrong. If your native economy is based largely on piracy, what do you do to survive? How do you relate your colony’s Governor if he is obviously taking his share of plunder? Is it acceptable for you to share a little of the fruits of piracy if you keep it to a minimum and lead a life of less extravagance than your neighbors?
We’d all like to think that such a world is pretty bizarre by our standards, but it isn’t.
This little thought experiment shows a key problem with the social rules of an economy. You can ignore them as much as you want, expressing yourself with your own personal sense of morality as long as what you profess isn’t actually illegal; in this day and age, those conflicts are rather rare. The flashpoint always comes when you try to make a living one way or another, making a social contract where you exchange your labor for money. That means you have to abide by the social rules of the economy – which are hardly ever written down in an organized form.
These Rules might be against your beliefs if you are Amish or a member of some other group that is just outside the norm. They also might be hidden from you until you become a member of the society – and if you break a Rule without knowing, you’ll never get to that point. If you are the wrong race you don’t stand a chance of getting to even know the Rules no matter how you try.
What I’m describing almost certainly goes against what any American understands to be either right or practical. In the USofA, the Good Live™ is and always will be open to all, at least in our mythology. However, as we see the progress of this Depression unwind it’s clear that we were duped. Our most basic values, at least as we profess them, have not been in operation. The Rules for one social class that raked in millions of dollars from the financial sector, and continues to grab the same take from taxpayers, are different than the Rules for the rest of us.
It logically follows that someone who is really smart probably could have figured out these Rules and taken advantage of them. What’s less obvious is that some of us understood this long ago, from a distance, and were morally opposed to the whole construction. We saw people who believed in following the Rules as nothing more than sheep and those who broke the Rules as essentially amoral.
The system that we’ve known is collapsing for what I would call obvious reasons. The Rules it operated under did not, ultimately, produce the Good Life™ – they were in opposition to it. So what comes next? Who will write the social rules of the next economy? Will they live up to our standards of fairness?
They won’t be written for some time, at least not until we’ve let the terrible changes taking place become properly digested. The system that has now collapsed into Depression was something enough people bought into, literally and figuratively, that it could be called a “culture”. It was more than the Rules, it was how we defined ourselves – and it was clearly screwed up.
Today, we generally accept that piracy is wrong, but do we accept a stock market based on rumors and manipulative puffing? Do we think an executive should be paid hundreds of times more than an engineer? Do we really believe that, in general, your pay should be inversely proportional to your willingness to get dirty? Do we reward intelligence and merit or do you advance by knowing the right people?
These are all serious questions that should be answered as we define the restructuring that will take place on our way out of this Depression. Some of us have been asking these kinds of questions for a long time. We asked these questions not out of arrogance, but because we honestly believed that the Good Life™ most of us desire should indeed be open to everyone. We believed in living up to our highest standards.
What are the Rules? How well known and transparent are they? As we create a new economic and cultural order from the wreckage of what is failing around us, who gets to participate? I think we generally know what the right answer is to these questions, but we have to have the guts to put those answers into practice.