I’m currently reading a book called Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power by Seth Rosenfeld. It’s a very good book, an interesting book; but the subject of this post is not the book itself. The subject is an elaboration on something that I read within it, something that deals with a subject I’ve been meaning for some time now to dwell on: money.
The author of Subversives quotes Reagan’s autobiography, Where’s the Rest of Me?, as saying that growing up in Dixon, Illinois had taught Reagan that “America was a place that offered unlimited opportunity to those who did hard work.” This is, of course, a commonly held sentiment in the United States. For most people, not to believe in this idea makes you some kind of a Socialist or a bum. Probably both. What’s to argue with? Hard work is a good thing. Unlimited opportunity is a good thing. Well, I have plenty of arguments, and on several levels. But here, I’m going to tackle it from just one level because it’s an idea that is seldom raised.
What did Reagan mean by “unlimited opportunity?” I think he meant to make as much money as you can. The sky’s the limit! Opportunity can mean other things—the opportunity to be in a position of power, the opportunity to be famous—but I think most people understand it to mean getting rich. (Let it be said: all three qualities—power, fame, and wealth—are negatives.) Working hard to obtain unlimited opportunity is really just putting a nice shine on greed. People say, “It’s not greed if you earned it.” But making an effort to obtain more stuff than you need is the definition of greed.
My fundamental opposition is the assumption that we should spend all our lives working hard to obtain “stuff.” That’s not what life is about. A certain amount of labor is necessary, of course. The Buddhists have a term I like: Right Livelihood. It means that the work you do for your survival should be seamless with your inner life and contribute to the healthy maintenance of the world around you. But it is, of course, very difficult to find that kind of work nowadays. Society is structured to keep us working at essentially meaningless jobs that benefit only the powerful. A lot of these jobs, if not most, are destructive to the general well-being.
So, if life is not about making money, what’s it about? I believe it’s about the development of the inner self, the solving of the riddles of Life. Most Americans are uncomfortable with this idea. They consider it foreign or New Agey. But, it’s not. It’s in our bones—which is to say, it’s universal and it’s ancient. It’s what Buddha and Lao Tzu and Jesus and all the other true sages taught. (What distinguishes New Age “philosophies” from what’s true is the level of work. Most New Age stuff is about getting relaxed, taking it easy, whereas the real stuff is hard work.) A lot of people believe we can never really understand life—except through science maybe. But the older I get, the more I believe that this kind of understanding—a spiritual understanding, I mean—is possible. To attain it has to be the most rewarding and fulfilling thing one can do. It offers so much relief—relief from the nagging, painful puzzles that constantly wear us down. But the only way we can achieve this kind of understanding is by getting rid of the idea that having lots of money is a good thing. That’s going to be hard to do; but at some point, this way of life will go. It’s become so debilitating that it will collapse of its own accord. It’s harmful even to the rich. (No one really gains anything from being rich. And the rich man is never prepared to die. He finds the moment of death utterly terrifying.)