A surprising number of our social problems will be peacefully resolved, or at least ameliorated, as we decline into poverty. I propose that the reader, who is also perhaps a voter, consider the many advantages.
But first, let me admit, that achieving poverty could be more difficult than we imagine. It is hard to erase wealth once it has accumulated. There is a risk someone may benefit from whatever is tried. Even raking in and burning cash, through the device of inflation, does not guarantee universal ruin. It only adds to the value of our non-cash treasures, and our embarrassment of riches continues in another form.
Under every economic system known to man, or at least known to me, there is a class of the relatively prosperous. This is especially so in the case of socialism, communism, and other “closed” societies, which have agencies to suppress gainful enterprise.
But also in (for instance) relatively open “developing” societies. Only a tiny number contrive to be rich, at first, usually by exploiting the few corrupt opportunities that remain from the past. Accumulation, and money laundering, take time.
Connections are invariably involved in that accumulation. By this, I would specify family connections. Wealth, once it exists, flows chiefly down through family troughs. Power, too, follows this path, although not entirely predictably, because the arbitrary seizure of power and wealth are encouraged by the phenomenon of envy.
The degree to which a society is “open,” as this term is commonly used, seems to change the equation. According to popular belief, when a society is freer, wealth is distributed more broadly, and there must soon be more of it, since the economic efforts of very few are restrained.
Arguably, we live in a society in which anyone who seriously wants it can make a lot of money. We also inhabit a modern welfare state, in which so much money is circulating that government offloads it onto those who hardly work.
Those who make money by industry are, by historical standards, heavily regulated and taxed, but still, governments tend to encourage “investors,” here as in Red China – and elsewhere. The politicians may be awkward or stupid, but we cannot imagine them purposely killing the geese that lay the golden eggs.
Their conscious strategy must be to take the eggs, rather than to smash them; but as I’ve hinted above, even when some eggs are mistakenly destroyed, it only makes the rest more expensive.
We take it for granted that we seek prosperity in this world. All public planning is directed to this end, whether or not it succeeds. Rhetorical conceits, such as “the American dream,” confirm that getting rich is our ideal, both individually and collectively.
There are alternative conceits, such as the pretense that various intangible things are “above money.” That man does not live by bread alone, is still sometimes recognized as a proverb.
At the moment, where I live, schoolteachers are threatening to go on strike, and of course we must listen to their broadcast advertising on the radio. It tells us that these teachers do not really want more money, instead they care ever so much about our children. Their non-negotiable demand is for boatloads of more money, however.
But while for the moment I may single them out, there is nothing special about their attitudes. Curiously, I know a teacher who is genuinely appalled by her colleagues’ demands, who would like to be free of the union; but she is only liked by students. Inflation whips her colleagues on.
Will more money make them happy?
The reader may guess that, perhaps paradoxically, more money will not do that. Enough to escape starvation may be welcome; to clothe oneself adequately in the winter cold; to pay off pressing debts.
But the benefit of unnecessary amounts is dubious. Such luxuries as it may buy are passing fancies. They spontaneously devalue once they are acquired, except when, unusually, some aspect of real beauty is attached to them. But this is usually restricted to living things (which are not always for sale).
For the most part the joy in wealth is competitive. It is equally attractive to have more, or for others to have less. This fact must enter into any moral calculation. In the neighborhood of millionaires, one needs a billion to stand out. What one could buy with that billion is just a subsidiary question.
Alas, how one stands to make that billion is also, generally, a subsidiary question. One’s first instinct is to get it legally, for then the police won’t likely take it away. Or failing that, to take only what the police won’t notice.
Alternatively, we might be satisfied with whatever comes our way. For if one is a farmer, or a useful craftsman, who is not lazy, some income is always possible.
I recently listened to a “revolutionary” praising the people who live in the favelas of Brazil. They look out for each other, he said. They are more inclined than the rich to share. He painted a pretty picture of life in these slums, understandably omitting the problem of violent crime. He ended by demanding that governments send more money in, so these people may “climb out” of poverty.
What an outrageous suggestion: to corrupt such lovely people with more money! I was appalled: for it seemed that their lives were blessed, and here was someone to tamper.
Christ, be it noted, had no plans to bankroll the poor. Organizing for material improvements were not any part of His scheme for salvation, whether for individuals or collective entities. He did not set targets or pay grades for His priests, or other functionaries, and while there were some lively suggestions in His parables, they weren’t for making money, per se.
One might think that Catholics would, in obedience to Christ, be more whimsical about wealth and power. We know, after all, that they cannot get us anywhere.
*Image: Progress by George Frederic Watts, c. 1888 [Watts Gallery – Artists Village, Compton, Surrey, England]
You may also enjoy:
Fr. Paul D. Scalia’s The Poverty of Wealth
Randall Smith’s Someone (Else) Please Help the Poor