Referring to a recent widely remarked-upon Heritage Foundation report that described the material wealth of America’s nominally “poor,” Cato Unbound editor Jason Kuznicki frames a familiar defense of free market capitalism against its “progressive” critics:
Forgetting, then, that most American poor really do eat cake. Also forgetting that the very notion of the poor eating cake was unthinkably absurd for all of human history. That’s why it became a catchphrase — because it was absurd. And yet our poor eat cake while talking on a video phone and watching their choice of movies on a flat-screen TV.
“Let them eat cake” was taken as a catchphrase not because the idea of the poor ever eating cake was an “unthinkable absurdity,” but because it expressed the total lack of empathy on the part of a queen for her starving subjects. Kuznicki’s reading reflects the same syndrome in its assumptions about who the poor are in a system that cannot be understood except as a global one. The flat screen that the American “poor” person is enjoying in the imaginary depiction was likely assembled by someone far away and unknown, someone who, along with his or her family, is very likely a much better representative of today’s poor, or at least of that segment inducted into wage slavery. To the small extent such people even exist for the American libertarian, whose ideological rejection of “government” corresponds to a determined rejection of the principle of the whole, they simply do not because they cannot matter, just as the hungry poor of France were “unthinkable” to the Queen (not that social liberals do very much better in any meaningful sense). It’s one example of what such exercises in rigorously non-dialectical materialism have to leave out in order to make a traditional defense of free market liberalism – “it’s so productive!” – internally coherent. The argument wins out, on the basis of something like the Rawlsean compromise (in brief, as long as the poor benefit materially, let the wealthy continue to grow wealthier), but remains sustainable only within artificially defined borders without which its appeal to the pure selfishness of an utterly empty self would be exposed not just in its self-insignificance, but in relation to what must be destroyed to keep it materially if not morally alive – at least until the day that the absurdity by whatever unthinkable and therefore totally unexpected way impinges on it as though from the outside, the externality revealing itself as always having been internal after all.