Try this for a progressive economic plan:
- Individual wealth capped at $600 million.
- Annual income capped at $12 million.
- Total inheritance capped t $60 million.
- $24,000 basic income for all Americans.
- Universal healthcare.
- 30 Hour workweek.
- Four week minimum vacation.
- Price controls on basic commodities.
That’s an actual plan, put forward by an actual America politician and potential candidate for the presidency. In 1934.
Though the numbers have been adjusted to account for inflation, this is the Share Our Wealth plan, as proposed by then Louisiana Sen. Huey Long. Long has come down to modern Americans mostly as corrupt and powerful “Kingfish,” and as the real-life inspiration for Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, but that view of Long is one that’s heavily shaded by those who felt threatened by his popularity. Which was pretty much everyone on both left and right. Long’s policies not only energized tremendous support in Louisiana, but generated a national base—particularly among minorities—that threatened established candidates. He was regarded as “the most dangerous man in America” by Franklin Roosevelt. At the same time Long’s enemies on the right, particularly in corporate and investment communities, leveled against him a familiar charge. They called him “a socialist” or even “a communist.”
But there’s a difference between the politics of 1934 and 2019. In 1934, real communists and socialists—as in supporters of Marxist theories that dismissed most concepts of personal ownership—were a significant factor in America. Those genuine communists, who were hated by “business leaders” but not yet so vilified as they would be in Cold War decades, had a different insult for Long.
They called him a capitalist. Because he was.
The Share Our Wealth program was progressive, in that it was absolutely designed to redistribute wealth that had even then gathered in an ever-shrinking upper class, and press it down not just to the middle class, but to every class. And every race. But that does make the plan ,or Long, socialist. Certainly not communist. Long’s plan was just not within what we’ve allowed to become a very, very narrow view of capitalism that treats every alternative as a threat.
The version of capitalism deployed across the western world in 2019, and the system impressed on up-and-coming economies everywhere, reflects only an extremely small portion of the possible spectrum. The ideas that the system promotes—about the value of the wealthy for “job creation,” about the value of investment vs. labor, about the brilliance of the unfettered “free market”—aren’t just untested … those ideas are proven failures.
Capitalism, as it exists in the United States and most of the world today, is an engine which has been exquisitely refined for the purpose of gathering wealth and concentrating it in fewer hands. Then it takes the wealth from those, and concentrates it into fewer still. Repeat until 600 billionaires have everything. Then keep repeating.
The astounding thing is that supporters of this system have sold this repeated failure so well, that many “serious people” now pretend that it’s not just right, but the only possible plan. The fact that the only time the United States experienced a genuine widening of the middle class and broad-based growth across all tiers was when this was definitively not the plan gets completely overlooked.
Huey Long was no angel. He was also no communist. Instead he was someone who became convinced there was more room inside the American system of government and economics than we now appear to believe possible. That there can be personal wealth, without having unlimited personal wealth. That there can be growth, without making that growth a synonym for giving more to those who already have much. That “productivity” need not represent an express measure of giving more to fewer.
Long believed that it is possible—within a democratic system, within a capitalist economy, without a repudiation of anything but those parts of the system that have proven they do not work—to build something better. A capitalism that works for more people. A capitalism that inspires hope for more people. A capitalism that generates more entrepreneurs, more innovation, more advances, more genuine wealth … without putting that wealth in fewer hands.
The amount of genuine wealth available in the United States today is such that it could genuinely usher in a “post scarcity society.” The kind of society in which everyone has the ability to pursue dreams and innovations because chasing those dreams doesn’t mean putting their family in enormous risk. That the kind of society whose potential is almost incomprehensible.
Only there is still plenty of scarcity, because we’ve built our system not as a wealth-generation engine, but a wealth-concentration engine, where “productivity” is a measure not of generating value for everyone, but of the effectiveness in narrowing down the winners. We don’t have a rising tide. We have water thieves.
The Share Our Wealth plan isn’t the only plan that could, or can, do that. In the last ninety years there have been many, many such examples of how we could, without burning down the existing system, build something not just more fair, but more empowering. But Share Our Wealth an example of how the ideas being put forward today are often far more timid than those of almost a century before.
And that’s not progress. Or progressive.
This is a Creative Commons article. The original version of this article appeared here.