ORONO – In the commentary titled “And the rich get richer” (July 1), Susan Feiner relates an imaginary conversation between a “camel” and a “rich man” who echoes vintage arguments in defense of the nation’s disparities in income and wealth, i.e., “Put your shoulder to the boulder. Work harder”; “People who aren’t working just don’t want to”; and “They could get jobs if they really wanted them.”

The “rich man” also defended a free, self-regulating and self-correcting market system that ensured that “the best rise to the top.”

It is possible to have an exaggerated view of free will, personal responsibility and self-reliance, to think of individuals as free-floating atoms, architects of their own lives and disconnected from any larger social and historical context.

While personal responsibility and self-reliance are to be admired, they border on fiction when carried to extremes. The assumption that success and failure are always individual in origin, however, persists as a component of the collective mindset as an explanation and justification for one’s place on the social pyramid and for the uneven distribution of social income, wealth and power.

Are we truly to assume that the 12,830,000 Americans unemployed during the Great Depression of the 1930s (one out of four in the entire labor force of more than 51 million) suffered from character defects?

Are we to assume that they did not exercise sufficient self-discipline, were not sufficiently clairvoyant or failed to take advantage of their God-given gifts, who lived in a society in which the gates of opportunity were opened to all and success or failure mirrored individual strengths and weaknesses?

What of those 16,128 production workers who filed through the gates of the state’s textile industry, whose structures altered the skyline of Maine communities? These workers lost their means of livelihood between 1947 and 1972 because the industry migrated south and faced overseas competition (primarily Japan and England).

The cataclysmic effects of mill closings were graphically apparent in the Biddeford-Sanford area, which, in 1959, had the dubious distinction of claiming the largest unemployment rate in the nation: 23.1 percent. Could it be that so many people simultaneously failed to adhere to the work ethic of personal initiative, responsibility, discipline, foresight and perseverance?

And what of those 28,680 workers who were once engaged in the leather and shoe industry of Maine in the late 1960s, the largest manufacturing employers in the state?

Pelted by shoe imports (from Taiwan, South Korea, Italy, Brazil, Hong Kong, Singapore, the Philippines, Spain, Yugoslavia, Romania, Japan, Poland, Mexico, Czechoslovakia, India, Greece, Austria, Thailand and El Salvador) and a domestic leather industry that found more profitable markets overseas, the shoe workers of the state — like the textile workers — found their lives dislocated through no fault of their own.

These are but a few examples drawn from the past.

Today, with numbing regularity, we note that we live in a society in which 27.1 million people are without full-time work and in which the middle class (which must have lost the Protestant work ethic) is spiraling downward while the top 10 percent of the population receives nearly 30 percent of the nation’s income.

The magic of technology has increased productivity, but its legacy includes stagnant wages and longer hours of work. The gap between compensation for CEOs and the average worker has widened (CEOs now make as much as 231 times more).

A new employer offensive against collective action by workers, both private and public, demanding concessions, modification of work rules or elimination of unionism altogether, is well under way, as is the renaissance of the classical liberal vision of economic freedom and the marketplace. All this, and more, in the midst of great disparities in income distribution unmatched since the eve of the Great Depression.

This, too, is a world of global corporations, global markets, global hiring halls and liberalized trade policies, which place everyone on the edge of economic insecurity and unemployment. The cardinal values of free will, personal responsibility and self-reliance are increasingly challenged when one is caught in the quagmire of economic dislocations beyond individual control.

When, however, do the arguments of personal responsibility and self-reliance, global competition, the self-regulating and self-correcting “laws” of the marketplace and the calls for budgetary restraint and sacrifice have intrinsic merit, and when do they serve to veil ideological goals of defusing efforts at collective bargaining, hobble governmental efforts to address inequities and buttress the uneven distribution of income, wealth and power?