Posted by: Harold Knight | 02/12/2010

Locke, Jefferson, Jeremiah, Nostradamus, and Henry Paulson

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Yesterday, some TV program must have focused on chatter about 9-11 or other conspiracy theories. Or on the “prophecies” of Nostradamus. This blog got the highest number of hits ever, and the most-used search term was “9/11,” to find my December 3 writing about conspiracy theories (and Nostradamus).

Weird.

John Locke famously that wrote that we have the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of property.”

Thomas Jefferson chose a different formulation in the Declaration of Independence, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Students in my writing classes glom onto Locke’s phraseology and seem uncomfortable with Jefferson’s. Curious. Or not—these kids are raised in a culture of property, property, property.

Let’s have property. Own a home whether or not we have the income to afford it.

Let’s make property.  Make money off the schlemiels and schlimazels who want property but can’t afford it.  Let’s arrange property (home) loans for them on which we will make a commission even if the loans go bad.

Let’s make money on bad loans by “bundling” them together and selling the bundle as a “security” even though there is nothing “secure” about the bundle. And let’s make more money on the bad loans by bundling the bundles with other securities that might make money to cover the losses of the loan the poor schlemiels took out in the first place, so no one will lose, and in fact, as the pyramid grows higher, we will all make money on the poor schlemiels’ property even if it isn’t real. That is, until so many of those original schlimazels default on their loans that even our sleight-of-hand can’t cover it up.

Secretary Paulson will bail us all out because he’s one of the boys (Eagle Scout, Phi Beta Kappa, MBA Harvard) and understands the importance of “property” to making money.

How did owning a home become “the American dream.” Not simply AN American dream, but THE American Dream. What capitalist robber-baron first realized the way to get the largest chunk of a common citizen’s money away from her was to sell her a house with a mortgage on which the robber-baron could make money. And then convinced the entire nation that giving robber-barons the lion’s share of one’s income (over the course of one’s life—forty years the norm) was THE American Dream. To say nothing of the other species of robber-barons making money on “insurance” on the Dream.

If the benighted dupes (let’s be civil, not say what we really think) who are determined to find conspiracies in every horrific event—the assassination, the destruction of 9/11, the landing of alien beings at Roswell and on and on and on—would spend as much time, energy, and investigative power on the real conspiracy, they might accomplish something useful.

Way back there (in 1678) about the time Locke was publishing his Second Treatise of Civil Government (1690), John Bunyan was warning against the pursuit of property in the sense of the physical stuff one owns (such as The American Dream).

World (Henry Paulson?):  . . . .and it is happened unto thee as to other weak men, who meddling with things too high for them, do suddenly fall into thy distractions; which distractions do not only unman men. . .but they run them upon desperate ventures, to obtain they know not what.
Christian:  I know what I would obtain; it is ease for my heavy burden.
World:  But why wilt thou seek for ease this way, seeing so many dangers attend it? Especially since. . .I could     direct thee to the obtaining of what thou desirest, without the dangers that thou in this way wilt run thyself into; yea, and the remedy is at hand. Besides, I will add, that instead of those dangers, thou shalt meet with much safety, friendship, and content
(1).

Poor befuddled Christian is pursuing happiness.  He couches his pilgrimage in religious language. But he’s looking for true happiness, peace, grace, love, salvation—all of those things. And what he wants is not “safety, friendship, and content,” but true happiness, that is, “ease for [his] heavy burden” of—of what? Sin, existential angst, fear of death?  Not The American Dream.

Prophecy is a strange phenomenon. Funky ole Jeremiah said (in Eugene Peterson’s translation):

Attention! I’m bringing a far-off nation against you,
O house of Israel (God’s decree).
A solid nation, an ancient nation,
A nation that speaks another language.
You won’t understand a word they say.
When they aim their arrows, you’re good as dead.
They’re a nation of real fighters!
They’ll clean you out of house and home,
Rob you of crops and children alike.
(Jeremiah 5:15-16)

So how did all this violence get into the Bible that tells us how God loves us and wants us to have happiness? Jeremiah turned out to be right. All manner of “false” prophets ran around Israel at that time. They were “false” only because they were wrong, not because they were inherently bad. He was right. Not the way Nostramus turns out to be “right,” by theorists making up meanings after the fact. Old Jeremiah laid it out explicitly.

We have the Prophet Thomas Jefferson. “All men are created equal. . . they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” It took two hundred years, but we finally got the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that more or less put into law the prophetic idea that all of us “are created equal.” Prophet Jefferson was right about that. But the jury (history) is still out on the “pursuit of happiness.”

That’s because of the conspiracy of people like Henry Paulson. Why don’t the graspers after straws who want to prove Nostradamus correctly predicted 9/11 and the end of the world, and those who think 9/11 was a government conspiracy grasp at something they can do something about? Let’s end the conspiracy of the Paulson’s of the world ripping us off by convincing us they know what The American Dream is—because it benefits them the most.

I know. I sound like a tiresome old Marxist or something.

Or, perhaps, a tired old Madisonian. Property, he said, “. . .embraces everything to which a man may attach a value and have a right; and which leaves to every one else the like advantage” (2).  He goes on to explain that the things to which a man attaches value are freedom of conscience, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, and so on. He doesn’t say anything about owning a home.

Or perhaps I’m a tired old Lockean.

The necessity of pursuing happiness [is] the foundation of liberty.  . . .[T]he highest perfection of intellectual nature lies in a careful and constant pursuit of true and solid happiness; so the care of ourselves, that we mistake not imaginary for real happiness, is the necessary foundation of our liberty. The stronger ties we have to an unalterable pursuit of happiness. . . .the more we are free from any necessary determination of our will to any particular action. . . . we are, by the necessity of preferring and pursuing true happiness as our greatest good, obliged to suspend the satisfaction of our desires in particular cases (3).

Ah! Locke does say the pursuit of happiness. And he defines it.

Locke, Madison, Jefferson, and John Bunyan understood. Jeremiah understood. The followers of Nostradamus don’t. Henry Paulson doesn’t. Control, property, and power don’t bring happiness. Neither does property. So what’s the news in that? Same song, second verse. I can’t seem to get off this life-long kick.
___________________
( 1)  Bunyan, John. Pilgrim’s Progress. Harvard Classics, Vol 15. New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1990, p; 23. Facsimile of original edition owned by the University of Michigan. Digitized Feb. 28, 2008. Web. 02/10/2010.
( 2) Madison, James. Papers 14:266. 29 March 1792.
http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/v1ch16s23.html
( 3) Locke, John.  An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. 1690. Book 2, Chapter XXI, “Of Power.”
http://oregonstate.edu/instruct/phl302/texts/locke/locke1/Book2b.html#Chapter XXI

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Responses

  1. Owning a house is not a good idea.

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