Photo by Vlad Tchompalov
During the late 18th century, there was a period of famine in France. The common people were all starving. When queen Marie Antoinette was told that they didn’t have enough bread to eat, she supposedly said, “then let them eat cake!”
The common people kept starving and eventually rose up to overthrow Marie and her husband, King Louis XVI. The king and queen were executed. This didn’t work out well for anyone, as the new government that replaced the monarchy proved to be at least as violent as its predecessor.
As I follow news coverage of the efforts by congressional Republicans to pass the American Health Care Act (AHCA), I am reminded of this story.
The AHCA, a healthcare bill in name only, would cut federal support for Medicaid and health insurance subsidies by over a trillion dollars over the next ten years. As a result, the Congressional Budget Office predicts that 23 million Americans would lose health insurance entirely. For those who can still afford to buy insurance, it would likely cost significantly more.
That trillion dollars the federal government would no longer spend helping its citizens get health insurance? Most of it would be given to the wealthiest Americans in the form of tax cuts. Poor and middle class Americans would lose access to healthcare so the richest among us can pay less in taxes.
Let them eat cake, indeed.
The House already passed its version of the AHCA, while the Senate will soon vote on its own draft. The two bills differ in some particulars, but would have the same overall effect.
I’m trying to wrap my head around why anyone would think the AHCA is a good idea. The most reasonable perspective I can come up with is that some people believe we get what we earn. “I worked hard for this money,” a supporter of the AHCA might say. “Why should I have to pay so much of it in taxes just so someone else can have health insurance?” There is a sense that someone who can’t afford health insurance doesn’t deserve it, either because they are not working hard enough, make poor choices or have some other flaw of character.
That’s certainly one way to look at things, but from an awfully narrow perspective. No one exists in a vacuum. To believe that your financial success and well-being, or lack thereof, exists independent from the livelihoods and well-being of others is to ignore the basic nature of life as inherently and irrevocably interconnected. What happens over here matters over there, and vice versa.
Ignoring this interconnectedness creates suffering for all involved. The French Revolution was the result of a society where an elite upper class lived in luxury while everyone around them struggled to meet even their basic needs. Of course, the rich and poor alike ended up paying for this disparity with their lives, first in the wave of bloodshed during the overthrow of the monarchy, and later in Napoleon’s wars after the former revolutionary leader seized power and proclaimed himself emperor. In a deeply stratified society, no one wins.
I don’t believe there is anything inherently wrong with someone having a great deal of money, but—and there is a but—that money brings with it a great deal of responsibility. Money, like everything else, is a form of energy, and energy needs to move. That’s just its nature. Someone with wealth who understands the power behind sharing that wealth—letting the money move—can do a great deal to help others.
By contrast, someone who seeks to hold onto their wealth is going to cause a lot of harm. Picture a river. When the river flows freely, moving downstream towards the sea, the water is clear and clean. But build a dam and stop the river from moving and it forms a lake of stinking, fetid water filled with pond scum and dirt. Hoarding money produces much the same result. The person who has it suffers because they are possessed by trying to keep it, and the people around them suffer the consequences of their greed.
The irony? Eventually even the richest families lose their money, as the pharaohs, the Bourbons or the Habsburgs can attest. Time and death, if nothing else, are the great equalizers.
Societies where the few prosper at the expense of the many are inevitably headed for a reckoning that is to no one’s benefit. But it doesn’t have to be this way. The nonviolent solution to great inequality is...greater equality. Those who have money and power can learn to share it, and to use it for the betterment of their fellows as well as themselves.
Indeed, we’ve seen this happen in the United States. The all-hands-on-deck mentality of the Great Depression and the Second World War led to a series of social programs, including Social Security and the GI Bill, that shared wealth in a way that strengthened society as a whole, and raised an entire generation of Americans into the middle class. It wasn’t communism, but it wasn’t pure, heartless capitalism either.
These programs were accompanied by political changes that expanded civil rights protections previously reserved for whites to black and brown Americans as well.
All of this worked. None of it has been perfect, but today America is the richest country in the history of the world, where, despite significant problems, the vast majority of her citizens are able to live in relative peace.
I don’t think anyone would say this is good enough. Whatever your political bent, everyone believes there are more changes to be made. But rolling back the principle that the people with the most money and power should help support those around them is certainly not a step in the right direction. Indeed, it goes against not just the arc of history, but of human progress in its most elemental form—the progress of the soul.
What are we here for, after all, if not to become kinder, wiser and more loving towards one another? Our purpose, if we have one, is surely to move through our fear-driven cynicism and greed and dislike for one another, and to touch our true nature, which is, the wisest tell us, divine in the best sense of the word.
Little children understand this innately, because they haven’t yet acquired years of scars to cover that true nature up. But for adults, schooled to believe in the supposed dog-eat-dog nature of life, that understanding can come harder. It becomes an article of faith—taking the risk that doing the right thing is worth it.
I believe that the richest country in the history of the world should make sure all of its citizens can see a doctor when they need one. I believe that all Americans should have food to eat, and a safe place to call home, and access to the sort of education that can help people broaden their perspectives on life. I believe everyone should treat each other with respect; that as Dr. King teaches us, it is as important to love your enemy as it is to love your friend. I believe this is reasonable, and achievable.
I believe there is room for everyone in this vision. No one, poor, rich or somewhere in the middle, need really be enemies. Everyone can play their part, to the betterment of us all. But we all have to be willing to let go of our desire to see other people as truly other. The rich need to understand that building themselves castles doesn’t actually make them safer, and the rest of us should know that if we were in their shoes, we would probably want to hold onto our money just as much as they do theirs.
Judging won’t get us anywhere. Working together to build a kinder, more peaceful, more giving world will. Let’s start by agreeing that taking healthcare away from 23 million people isn’t a good place to start.
Voting down the AHCA and working together to make sure everyone who needs medical help can get it is. We can do better than cake.
Ian is a writer and the founder and editor of Open Heart Beginner's Mind.