The Morality of Wealth
We have just studied wealth from the economic point of view. It may be useful also to say something about its moral effects.
In all ages wealth, from the moral standpoint, has been a subject of controversy. Certain philosophers, certain religions have decreed that it is to be despised; others have lauded moderation—aurea mediocritas (“the golden mean”). Very few, if any, have admitted that a burning ambition for the enjoyment of a large fortune is a proper moral attitude.
Who is wrong? Who is right? It does not behoove political economy to treat this subject of individual morality. I say only this: I am always inclined to believe that in matters of common, universal practice, the theorists, the scholars, the philosophers are much more prone to be mistaken than is common practice itself, especially when in this word “practice” we include not only the actions of the great majority of mankind, but their sentiments and their ideas as well.
Now, what does common practice show us? It shows us all men struggling to emerge from poverty, which is their starting point; all preferring the experience of satisfaction to that of want, wealth to privation—all of them, I say, including, with few exceptions, the very ones who declaim so eloquently to the contrary.
The desire for wealth is tremendous, constant, universal, overwhelming. In almost all parts of the world it has triumphed over our instinctive aversion to work. It takes the form, whatever one may say, of even baser greed among savages and barbarians than among civilized peoples. All the voyagers who left Europe imbued with the idea that Rousseau had made popular in the eighteenth century that in the antipodes they would encounter the natural man, the unselfish, generous, hospitable man, were struck with the rapacious avarice by which these primitive men were devoured. In our time, our soldiers have been able to testify as to the opinion we should hold of the much vaunted unselfishness of the Arab tribes.
On the other hand, all men, even those whose conduct is at variance with it, agree in principle that we should honor unselfishness, generosity, self-control, and should castigate that excessive love of wealth which leads us to stoop to any means to secure it. And yet with the same unanimity all men lavish their praise on the person who, whatever his walk of life, strives by honest and persevering toil to better his lot and his family's position in society. From this collection of facts, opinions, and attitudes, we must, it seems to me, arrive at the judgment we should pass on wealth as it affects individual morality.
First of all, we must recognize that the motivating force that drives us toward wealth comes from Nature; it is the creation of Providence and is therefore moral. It has its roots in that original and common state of destitution which would be the lot of all of us were it not for the desire that it creates in us to free ourselves from the chains of want. We must recognize, secondly, that the efforts that all men make to break these chains, provided they remain within the bounds of justice, are respectable and commendable, since they are everywhere commended and respected. Furthermore, no one will deny that there is a moral side to labor itself. This is expressed in the proverb that belongs to all nations: “Idleness is the mother of all vices.” (“Satan still finds work for idle hands to do.”) And we should fall into shocking contradiction if we said, on the one hand, that labor is indispensable to men's morality, and, on the other, that men are immoral when they work to gain wealth.
In the third place, we must recognize that the desire for wealth becomes immoral when it goes beyond the bounds of justice and equity, and that the greater the wealth of the greedy, the more severely is greed itself censured.
Such is the judgment that is pronounced, not by a few philosophers or sects, but by the vast majority of mankind, and I accept it.
I must remark, however, that it is possible, without contradiction, for this judgment not to be the same today as it was in antiquity.
Both the Essenes and the Stoics lived in a society in which wealth was obtained at the price of oppression, pillage, and violence. It was immoral not only in itself, but, by virtue of the immorality of the means by which it was acquired, it revealed the immorality of the men who enjoyed it. A reaction against it, even an exaggerated one, was quite natural. Modern philosophers who declaim against wealth without taking into account the difference in the means of acquiring it liken themselves to Seneca or Christ. They are mere parrots repeating words that they do not understand.
But the question that political economy raises is this: Does wealth represent moral good or moral evil for mankind? Does the steady increase in wealth imply, from the point of view of morality, progress or decadence?
The reader can anticipate my answer, and he realizes that I have already had to say a few words about personal morality in order to avoid the following contradictory, or rather impossible, conclusion: What is immoral for the individual is moral for society at large.
Without having recourse to statistics, without consulting prison records, we may express our problem in these terms:
Does man degenerate in proportion as he gains greater control over material things and Nature, as he harnesses them to his needs, as he uses them to create greater leisure for himself, and as, freeing himself from the demands of his most pressing bodily needs, he is able to rescue from the inertia where they lay dormant moral and intellectual faculties that undoubtedly were not given him with the intent that he should let them remain in eternal lethargy?
Does man degenerate in proportion as he passes from the most inorganic state, so to speak, and rises toward the most spiritual state of which he is capable?
To pose the problem thus is to solve it.
I grant that when wealth is accumulated by immoral means, its influence is immoral, as was the case with the Romans.
I also agree that when it is amassed and distributed with great inequality, digging deeper and deeper chasms between the social classes, it has an immoral influence and gives rise to subversive passions.
But can the same thing be said for wealth that is the fruit of honest labor and of free transactions, when it is distributed in a uniform manner among all classes? Certainly such a position is not tenable.
Nevertheless, the books of the socialists are full of denunciations of the rich.
I cannot really understand how these schools of thought, so divergent in other respects, but so unanimous on this point, can fail to see the contradiction into which they fall.
On the one hand, wealth, according to the leaders of these schools, has a deleterious, demoralizing influence that withers the soul, hardens the heart, and leaves only a taste for depraved pleasures. The rich have all the vices. The poor have all the virtues. They are just, sensible, generous; such is the line adopted.
And, on the other hand, all the socialists' powers of imagination, all the systems that they invent, all the laws that they try to foist upon us, have the effect, if we are to believe them, of turning poverty into wealth.....
The morality of wealth is proved by this maxim: the profit of one is the profit of the other.....