Monday, June 14, 2010

The New Feudalism

Today's Wall Street Journal listed Michigan as one of the states (26 in all, plus DC) that now permit perpetual trusts (p. R4). I was surprised, so I did some digging on the Web. Sure enough, Michigan abolished the Rule Against Perpetuities as recently as the spring of 2008. Somehow I missed that. It did not become a big issue in the media for some reason, but it should have.

It seems that a good part of the reaction (a word I use advisedly) in our country to the crisis of capitalism is to give up on the capitalist system in favor of a return to feudalism. We have no estate tax right now, and a recent New York Times story on the consequences of this raised a great many reader comments approving of the new situation. We have repealed the RAP in more than half the states. In the last election, it looked for a while like the Presidency would become the property of the Bushes and the Clintons, recalling the good old days of Lancaster versus York. Now all we have to do is bring back primogeniture and entail, and we'd be back in 1400.

I guess that some people would be comfortable putting themselves under the protection of the DeVos's or the Van Andel's. For myself, I prefer democratic capitalism. No, not the kind caricatured in some economic theory where all people do is follow their pecuniary interest. (See today's Times about a new idea: paying people to take their prescriptions.) I want the kind of capitalism where corporate leaders look out for their investors, creditors, vendors, customers, workers, and neighbors as much as they look out for themselves. I want capitalism where the standards of conduct go beyond "Is it legal?" or "Would it enhance my personal wealth?"

But maybe that's where the push for a new feudalism comes from. Yes, people want security, physical and economic, and they don't trust government or corporations to give it to them. Beyond that, they want a world of "noblesse oblige", where they wealthy felt an obligation to look out for the interests of ordinary people, at least in their own community (manor). They want a world where the Christian church had real power, and where everyone shared a common, distinctively Christian understanding of the structure of society and individuals' roles in it. I understand the nostalgia. (My wife watches HGTV, and you'd be amazed at the number of guys building castles in their backyards.) The trouble is that you end up with a stagnant economy, a world where most people are poor and dependent, and no hope for anything better.

John Tiemstra