Television ads these days are replete urging us to be sure to avail ourselves with all that we can get for the asking. Actors, athletes, politicians, and anyone else with a name to sell, can vouch for bargains too good to be true! It’s not just that they’re free; we’re actually entitled to them! Medicare and Medicaid just ask us to sign up. Old Jets quarterback Joe Namath tells us to “make sure you get all that you’re entitled to.” Remember “the dole,” once viewed disparagingly as the path of “freeloaders,” too lazy or unresourceful to find gainful employment? Today, there are many other paths to fortune not to be overlooked: the bonuses for life and auto insurance, the extra months for subscriptions at no extra cost, and the two-for-one sales on grocery items goading us to buy more than we need.
There are also the money-back inducements offered on credit cards – buy all you want this month and earn a discount on your payment next round. Let’s not forget the increasing number of lotteries inviting our participation. If we should become injured or get into an accident – on the highway, or take medications with bad reactions, suffer bungled surgery, or get defective merchandise — we should just sue! Lots of lawyers are there to help with the details. We should be so lucky!
There are lots of ways of getting free money, to get rich, without working for a living. Only losers work to get their money, right? What we really need to do is locate the right jackpot. Inducements now seem to be more clever and seductive than in the past; it’s all due to the wonders of capitalism and the free market.
The idea of getting something for nothing — be it called a windfall gain, the unearned increment, or, perhaps, the motherlode — is hardly new. In fact, history shows that there was a time when a good part of society got reliable income as a matter of course without having to earn it: they were called rentiers. That rentier is not understood as an English word is revealing. Only in recent years is it used in common English discourse at all, and several English dictionaries don’t even include it. If they do, they note it’s French.
But the word, and the idea, has returned. The Oxford dictionary defines it as “a person living on income from property or investments.” Wikipedia is hard put to define the term except by linking it to others: rentier capitalism, or rentier state. That the term once related to another time and place, at least in the contemporary English-speaking world, reveals our current understanding of economy and society. The term rent, when used today, has taken on an entirely different meaning in the vernacular; only in the academic discipline of economics does it have classic meaning. The result of the discourse about markets and economics is that the discipline of economics has been corrupted: its history, either as a practice or as a discourse, is not even taught in most universities, even though its introductory courses are familiar to most undergraduates.
If the terms rent and rentier in their classical meanings are to be re-introduced to students in basic economics courses, it will likely lead to challenging and profound discussion. It will point to the fact that the discipline of economics as it employed the term in the 18th and 19th centuries was once known as political economy, and was taught as part of moral philosophy. The result of treating economics as a value-free study is that its practices are validated without regard to their impact. The term “invisible hand,” the only artifact still known from Adam Smith’s 1776 book, The Wealth of Nations, assumes that what results from market exchanges is a validation of private pursuits, no matter how secured.
Today, there is no stigma attached to unearned income; with rare exceptions, parties are encouraged to pursue gains however possible. If we can get them, they are ours – Finders Keepers! Unearned gains, what Gladstone once called “lazy income,” what J.S. Mill called the “unearned increment,” and what was acquired by rentiers was often regarded as cheating. Classical economist Henry George viewed such rent as the right of society, properly collected by its agent – the state. People should earn their income – do an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay. There remains today in many quarters a view that earnings should come from labor, and not from windfalls. That’s our entitlement.
We need to review what gains are rightfully secured and what are the outgrowth of a corrupted society and economy.