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Allan Powell: The view from the top of the coach

September 06, 2012|By ALLAN POWELL

Several writers have told their story by the use of contrast in two cities to get their message across. St. Augustine set the City of God against the City of Satan to illustrate the eternal conflict between good and evil. Charles Dickens compared London and Paris as the setting for the comparison between moderation and radicalism in “A Tale of Two Cities.” Today, we could set reason against revelation by setting Charlottesville, (Jefferson) as a contrast to Lynchburg (Jerry Falwell). Hopefully, it is no stretch to use fiction to make a point of contrast in social philosophy.

“A Tale of Two Coaches” might well be used to illustrate the long standing clash of two views about the role of government in relation to the sharing of wealth. A scene in the 1939 film, “Stagecoach” will set the stage for one view. A traveler in the coach was a banker by the name of Gatewood. As the coach lunged along a dusty road, Gatewood, with an animated voice asserted, “I don’t know what the government is coming to. Instead of protecting businessmen, it pokes its nose into business! Why, they’re even talking now about having bank examiners. As if we bankers don’t know how to run our own banks. Why at home I have a letter from a popinjay official saying they were to inspect my bank…. The government must not interfere with business…. What this country needs is a business man for president.”

It turned out that Gatewood was a banker on the run after embezzling money from his own bank. Bankers are now very sophisticated in how to extract funds and have demonstrated clearly the case for being inspected and regulated. Our experience with corrupt bankers makes it a puzzle to hear chatter from libertarian apologists about the folly of monitoring our financiers.

The second coach comes as part of a parable in an 1887 novel written by Edward Bellamy with the title, “Looking Backward.” Bellamy wanted to describe the mind-set of people living in 1887 to people living in the year 2000. He was able to convey this difference by the use of a parable. This coach was also on a dusty road that had many bumps and ruts that endangered the very wealthy people riding at the top of the coach. This coach was pulled by many other unfortunate human toilers who suffered mightily as they strained in the harness. The wealthy riders enjoyed the sun and fresh air at the top and held on tightly to avoid being jarred out of their seat when the coach hit a rough spot in the road. If dislodged, they would have to pull the coach with other sweaty, dirty human beings.

A listener in 2000 asks, “But didn’t they think only of themselves? Wasn’t their very luxury rendered intolerable to them by comparison with the lot of their brothers and sisters in the harness, and the knowledge that their own weight added to their toil? Had they no compassion for fellow beings from whom fortune only distinguished them?”

Bellamy assured the questioner that the elite riders at the top of the coach were generous in shouts of encouragement to the toilers in the harness. Their religious spokesmen made worthy pleas to pull harder if they hoped to gain their just reward in paradise. But, for the most part, “If the passengers could only have felt assured that neither they nor their friends would ever fall from the top, it is probable that beyond contributing to the liniments and bandages they would have troubled themselves extremely little about those who dragged the coach.”

These two accounts of events on coaches show two contrasting, well-known, attitudes about how to deal with your fellow human beings. Nothing has changed since Bellamy wrote his parable. Those at the top of the coach will use any means to keep their seats and promote the ideology that justifies this arrangement. They will oppose all plans to ameliorate the pain of those in the harness. They will remain unmoved by the plight of the unemployed and untouched by the pleas of the handicapped. Indeed, they oppose even liniments and bandages.

Especially insufferable are those who inherited what they possess while making public addresses about their achievements, self determination and personal virtues. Meanwhile, they pay lobbyists to stop any raise in the minimum wage law. It takes old movies and old parables to remind us that we may have come a long way in technology but we have a long way to go in dealing with each other.

Allan Powell is professor emeritus of philosophy at Hagerstown Community College.

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