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What Confucius Said: On Greed and the Public Good

By David Budbill

From the Community Blogs

In New York City, down on the Lower East Side, in Chinatown, about a block south of where The Bowery crosses Canal Street, out in the middle of the traffic where Division Street splits into a Y and joins Bowery, in that triangle of asphalt and concrete created by the forking Division Street, in the middle of the stalled, horn-blaring, weltering confusion, the chaos and noise, on a stone pedestal about seven feet high stands a silent and serene, ten foot bronze statue of Confucius looking out over the swarming crush of humanity.

On the base of the statue chiseled in the stone is the following quotation from his writing called The Great Harmony, the TA TUNG.

When the great principle prevails the world is a Commonwealth in which rulers are selected according to their wisdom and ability. Mutual confidence is promoted and good neighborliness cultivated. Hence men do not regard as parents only their own parents nor do they treat as children only their own children. Provision is secured for the agéd till death, employment for the able bodied and the means of growing up for the young. Helpless widows and widowers, orphans and the lonely as well as the sick and disabled are well cared for. Men have their respective occupations and women their homes. They do not like to see wealth lying idle, yet they do not keep it for their own gratification. They despise indolence, yet they do not use their energies for their own benefit. In this way, selfish schemings are repressed, and robbers, thieves and other lawless men no longer exist, and there is no need for people to shut their outer doors. This is the great harmony.

Imagine such a society. Imagine leaders in a society having this ideal toward which they strive.

In 1998, when I first began this essay, I saw a program on one of the TV networks called GREED. This was months before the game show of the same name. The show was an open and unabashed defense, and promotion, of pure and simple greed. Ted Turner–not exactly Mother Teresa himself–was on the show as a kind of straw man, a fall guy, to be ridiculed for giving away a few million of his dollars, by other corporate CEO’s who argued that the best thing for everyone in America is for people like themselves to make as much money as possible and keep it all for themselves or use it to generate greater profits for their businesses.

The program posited the idea that since profits in the private sector are what make our country prosperous and strong, any notion of anything even remotely approaching the idea of “the public good” is not only laughable but, in fact, actually bad for the economy.

These words from Confucius about the nature of the social contract and the public good, about how to be just and caring with your neighbors, and how unchecked greed and the profit motive will destroy anything and everything, seemed surreal, laughable in the late 1990s. Today, a scant ten years later, they are prophecy.

How far have we as a people strayed from the kind of Confucian humanism presented by that quotation from the TA TUNG?

Or perhaps my mistake is to imagine that we Americans have ever shared this Confucian vision of a social contract and the public good. Perhaps the real American vision is a loose fitting anarchy devoted exclusively to the aggrandizement of the individual and his or her ability to acquire money and power. Perhaps Donald Trump is the only true American god.

Yet a part of the American dream has also been movements devoted to something bigger than the individual. I think about J. Phillip Randolph and John L. Lewis and the Labor Movement born to resist the greed of the Captains of Industry, or the cooperative Credit Union movement born to overcome the rapaciousness and usury of bankers. Both of these movements sprung from visions of something bigger than the self, both come out of the idea that cooperation can benefit all.

Or what about the phenomenon of Frederick Law Olmstead and the creation of public parks all across America–spaces for The Public to enjoy? Anybody who has wandered through Central or Prospect Parks in New York City or The Emerald Necklace in Cleveland or walked along the lakeshore in Chicago knows the joy of a public space. There is a tradition of “the public good” in America. It’s just been trampled to death by greed.

Yet I keep hearing a quiet voice coming from that statue of Confucius, a voice saying that human community is better, fairer, easier, kinder, gentler, more effective and more just when we know there is a social contract and something called The Public Good. Why is it so hard to hear that small voice?

At the beginning of this new millennium the Stock Market soared off into the stratosphere or crashed or did one and then the other, but no matter what happened the New Rich drove off into A Bright New Day in their Sports Utility Vehicles decked out in their Designer Clothes sipping a double-half-caf-decaf-organic-low-fat-latte. It truly was what Ronald Reagan said it was: Morning in America. And, because it finally truly was Morning in America, finally Free Market Capitalism and “the private sector” could stand up and shout to the whole world what they’ve meant to say all along:

Anything public is not only bad for the economy, it is, in fact, evil and must be eliminated as soon as possible: public parks, public transportation, public agricultural and medical research, public libraries, public health care, public education, public care of the poor and the mentally ill–they all must go.

Even though we are now almost a decade into this new century, this attitude is nowhere more evident right now than in the vicious “debate” over Universal Health Care.

When self-aggrandizing greed and personal gratification are all that matter, when Money and Me and an open hatred of “the public good” stand at the center of our society’s profoundest philosophy of life, it is impossible to remember our own traditions of cooperation, impossible to hear that small Confucian voice talking about the public good.

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