Trevor Brookins

*Among the many things mentioned in his State of the Union address last week, President Obama brought up the problem of this country becoming more about those that “have” and those that “have not.” More specifically he spoke about how to prevent this from happening further.

Soon after the State of the Union, Indiana governor Mitch Daniels gave the official Republican response in which he referenced the “haves” and the “will haves.” But such a statement begs the question of why should we think that those who currently do not have will have in the future. To this point there are generally three ways to become a “have”: inheritance, some remarkable product, or by taking advantage of others.

The problem we face as a nation is that the country has its basis with men who, for the most part, had nothing to inherit, nor did they control a remarkable product. Essentially this country was founded and settled by men who were “have nots.” But wishing to change their status they used the third avenue of taking advantage of others. The men who colonized this continent for Europe took advantage of their Native American contemporaries to gain land and then exploited the labor and agricultural knowledge of their African contemporaries. Voila, those who once were “have nots” became “haves.”

The unpleasant truth of the European colonization of North America has largely been glossed over in the historical record or ignored. And whenever these historical facts are addressed the narrative typically revolves around the idea that the pilgrims believed they were fulfilling God’s divine will for their lives and for the land they were taking.

So in American history we are repeatedly told that people become “haves” by following God’s plan and by working hard. In fact American culture is imbued with the sense that there is always a new frontier to be claimed by those who would sweat for it. That is Americans do not need help to gain the status of a “have,” rather they need to look for the open space and work hard.

This myth in American culture started out as a harmless fiction but now threatens to ruin the country.  When there is unclaimed land to settle, or when the decision makers are willing to look the other way while claimed land is taken, indeed hard work is the only ingredient needed to transform a “have not” into a “have.” However once the opportunity of seemingly free land is no more, then we as a nation must decide if hard work is still the only ingredient necessary to become a “have.”

The way in which one decides this question determines whether one is a liberal or conservative. Those who would answer no (hard work is not enough), should and do support President Obama in his vision for funding public education and his aim of keeping the cost of college affordable. No doubt his vision involves regulation and taxes. To the contrary those who answer yes (hard work is all one needs), argue for less government intervention in the form of regulation and less taxes.

But to those who would have less government intervention two questions must be answered: How will those who are currently in the “have not” group enter into the “have” group? At this point in history inheritance is a viable method if you happen to be the descendant of a wealthy citizen. But the absence of land for the taking creates a roadblock to changing one’s status from “have not” to “have.” Likewise without government regulation the second method (a remarkable product) is not likely to answer. This is because larger companies will be able to bully buy-out, and/or bankrupt smaller companies that innovate – leaving those in charge of the bigger companies to again close the doors to “have” club. This is the story of American history following the Civil War.

Government regulation is why monopolies cannot exist outright and quasi monopolies are prosecuted. And in doing so government ensures that the next great idea will not be unjustly gobbled by the largest competitor. Republicans prefer a society in which social and economic mobility are not barred by law but incredibly difficult to achieve in fact. Of course the liberal paradigm for our country does not ensure mobility but it does make it more likely with hard work.

We as a society have agreed that government supported exploitation is not how we’d like to create “haves.” But that means we as a society must allow for government to assist in other ways.

Trevor Brookins is a free lance writer in Rockland County, New York. He is currently working on a book about American culture during the Cold War.  His writing has appeared in The Journal News. You can reach him at [email protected]