A Philosopher's Blog

Can Everyone be Wealthy?

Posted in Business, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on October 20, 2011
Emma Goldman

Emma Goldman (the tattoo, not the person)

It is sometimes asked whether or not everyone can be wealthy. This depends, obviously enough, on what is meant by “wealthy.” Determining what “wealthy” means requires sorting out the nature of wealth.

As might be imagined, there is a fair amount of debate about the true nature of  personal wealth.  While this oversimplifies things, a fairly standard view of wealth is that it consists of the net economic value of a person’s assets minus their liabilities. To be a bit more specific, these assets typically include possessions (cars, guns, art, computers, books, appliances, and so on), monetary resources (cash, for example) and capital resources. Not everyone buys into the stock view, of course. For example, Emma Goldman claimed that “real wealth consists in things of utility and beauty, in things that help to create strong, beautiful bodies and surroundings inspiring to live in. But if man is doomed to wind cotton around a spool, or dig coal, or build roads for thirty years of his life, there can be no talk of wealth.” As another example, some thinkers include non-economic goods (such as knowledge) within the realm of wealth. To keep thing simple and within our current economic system, I will limit the discussion to the “stock” account of wealth (that is, economic assets).

In our current economic system, it is obviously not the case that everyone is wealthy. When this fact is brought up, some folks like to claim that even the poor of today are wealthier than the wealthy of the past. In some ways, this is true. After all, the typically poor person in North America or the United Kingdom has possessions that not even the greatest pharaoh or Caesar possessed (such as a microwave oven). In many other ways, this is not true. After all, a wealthy noble of the past would have land, structures, gold, art, and so on that would make him a wealthy man even today. Also, there is the obvious fact that there are poor people today who are as poor as the poorest people in human history in that they possess just the tatters on their backs and just enough food to not die (at least for the moment). In any case, the fact that the sum total of wealth of humanity is greater now than in the past (even taking into account that there are so many more of us) does not tell us much beyond that (such as whether the current distribution is just or whether we can all be wealthy or not).

Getting back to the main subject, what needs to be determined is what is meant by “wealthy.” As noted above, I am limiting my discussion to economic wealth, but a bit more needs to be said.

In some ways, wealth can be seen as being analogous to height. A person has height if they have any vertical measurement at all. Likewise, a person has wealth if she has any economic assets in excess of her liabilities. This could be as little as a single penny or as much as billions of dollars. Obviously, everyone could (in theory) have wealth, just as everyone can have height. But, of course, a person is not wealthy just because s/he has wealth, no more than a person is tall simply because s/he has height. On the other side, lacking wealth is described as being destitute and lacking height is described as being short.

Continuing the analogy, being wealthy or wealthier  can be seen as analogous to being tall or taller. Being tall means having more height than average  and being taller than another means having more height than that person. Likewise being wealthy would seem to mean having more wealth than average and being wealthier than another means having more wealth than that person. If this view is correct, then we cannot all be wealthy anymore than we can all be tall. Obviously, we could all have the same height or the same wealth, but the terms “tall” and “wealthy” would have no application in these cases. As such, we cannot all be wealthy-if we had the same amount of wealth, then no one would be wealthy.

It could be contended that being wealthy is not a matter of comparison to the wealth of other people, but rather a matter of having economic assets that meet a specified level. Depending on how that level was specified, then everyone could (in theory) be wealthy. Of course, the question of whether or not such a level should be considered wealthy or not would be a matter of debate.

It might be contended that focusing on whether or not everyone can be wealthy is not as important (or interesting) as the question of whether or not everyone can be well-off in the sense of having adequate resources for a healthy and meaningful existence. This is, of course, a subject for another time.

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29 Responses

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  1. T. J. Babson said, on October 20, 2011 at 7:21 am

    You forgot to point out that there is a great deal of shared wealth that people gain by living in a wealthy country vs. a poor one.

  2. magus71 said, on October 20, 2011 at 9:10 am

    According to Mike’s theory, if one man has a ton of M+Ms and another has 1/2 ton of M+Ms, only the man with a ton has a lot of M+Ms. We must count out each M+M and distribute them perfectly between the two men before it can be said there is justice. Even if the man with 1 ton of M+Ms went to a university and got a master’s degree in accumulation of M+Ms, and the second man has not bothered to educate himself on how to maximize M+M accumulation.

    Is the system rigged, Mike? Is it a caste system? If I did the exact same things that Jobs did would I be close to his success?

    In the end, what’s your point?

    • T. J. Babson said, on October 20, 2011 at 10:57 am

      Some might think that the man with 1/2 ton of M&Ms and all the time in the world to eat them is wealthier than the man with 1 ton of M&Ms but who works 70 hours a week and barely has time to even see his family.

    • Asur said, on October 20, 2011 at 11:16 am

      magus71: “According to Mike’s theory, if one man has a ton of M+Ms and another has 1/2 ton of M+Ms, only the man with a ton has a lot of M+Ms. We must count out each M+M and distribute them perfectly between the two men before it can be said there is justice.”

      Congratulations on yet another Straw Man fallacy, Magus; your ability to consistently create these is impressive.

      Mike did not attribute a theory to himself, hence there is no “Mike’s theory” in this post to refer to. I suppose one could, with great effort and violence to intelligence and common sense, misrepresent the first part of his discussion on whether ‘wealth’ is a relative or absolute term as being “Mike’s theory”–as you have done–but it seems especially dubious given even just his comments of the past week or so.

      You might recall that he endorsed distributing wealth according to merit, and specifically identified the notion that “justice” requires equal distribution–the very notion you here attribute to him–as generally being a piece of far-right propaganda.

      Well done, my right-wing friend, well done.

      • magus71 said, on October 20, 2011 at 11:54 am

        Mike’s theory has been expounded upon in numerous blog articles and conversations between he and I. His theory is: Spread the wealth because most of the rich were born that way and did nothing to earn it anyway.

        Have you not read Mike’s numerous articles on wealth redistribution? Where do I say in my statement that I figured out Mike’s theory from this blog post alone? This post is the result of several people challenging Mike on his belief that because one man is rich, another must be poor to balance the scales.

        Thanks for reading.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 20, 2011 at 12:24 pm

      My obvious answer is that 1/2 a ton of M&Ms is still a lot of candy. Of course, “a lot” can be taken as a relative term as well. If I have 1,000 tons of M&Ms and you have 1/2 a ton, I would have a lot of M&Ms relative to you. However, if we take it is being a measure based on some standard of what counts as a lot I suspect that a 1/2 ton of M&Ms would be a lot for one person’s individual consumption.

      No, justice is not having the same. If one person stole a cat and sold it to buy a tat and another person committed murder, it would not be justice to punish them the same. If one person earns by merit and hard work a ton of candy and another person gets proportionally less based on less merit and effort, then that would be just.

      Yeah, the system is totally rigged. To use one example, look at the schools. Schools are obviously very disparate-which is why so many parents try to live in the districts for the good schools and avoid the ones in poor areas if they possibly can. Also, some folks start off with inherited wealth and family connections-this would be like being allowed to start a marathon, for example, at mile 10 or even 25 rather than at the start. And so on. Some parts of the system might be unfair in some ways, but perhaps should not be changed (or could not be changed). For example, it would probably be unreasonable to insist that people start out without inheritances (although given the arguments that people can boot strap themselves, then this might be a great idea).

      No, not a caste system-that implies the impossibility of mobility. It is, however, a class system and one that is becoming more divided, more rigid and more problematic. Democracy, it can be argued, really needs a broad middle class and we are seeing that middle class being highly compressed. To stay stable, a society ultimately needs to allow the talented and ambitious to succeed (rather than seeking revolt). So far, people can make it up-but this is becoming harder and harder. Plus, there is a growing mass of dissatisfied people who increasingly believe that the political and economic system is stacked against them and that their efforts and rule following have not yielded fruit. These folks are not looking for handouts, they are looking for the American dream and are increasingly finding it denied.

      My point? Mainly to discuss the issue of whether everyone be wealthy or not, but I am inclined to think that the better question is “can everyone be well off or not?”

      • magus71 said, on October 20, 2011 at 12:45 pm

        “but I am inclined to think that the better question is “can everyone be well off or not?”

        You and I are in agreement on that.

      • T. J. Babson said, on October 20, 2011 at 3:37 pm

        “Schools are obviously very disparate-which is why so many parents try to live in the districts for the good schools and avoid the ones in poor areas if they possibly can.”

        Mike, are you following what is happening in Chicago? Are you in favor? Note that this had to be done privately because when the city tried to establish an all-boy school they were sued by the ACLU.

        Urban Prep Academies is a nonprofit organization that operates a network of free open-enrollment public all-male college-preparatory high schools in Chicago. It has its headquarters in the 420 North Wabash building in the Near North Side.[1][2] Founded in 2002, and receiving its first Charter approval from Chicago Public Schools in 2005, it operates the nation’s first all-male public charter high school. The network opened a second campus in 2009 and a third in August 2010.

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Urban_Prep_Academies

        • magus71 said, on October 21, 2011 at 1:23 am

          “Schools are obviously very disparate-which is why so many parents try to live in the districts for the good schools and avoid the ones in poor areas if they possibly can.”

          That has as much to do with the types of children that go to those schools. Parents don’t want their kids around those children. It probably doesn’t have that much to do with money–it’s culture. Culture is the most important thing in human experience. Some cultures condemn their children to be as poor as their parents were. You won’t change it. It’s like giving the drunk on the street a $100 bill everyday. Where do you think he’ll spend it?

          But since you want to talk about unfairness in schools…If a person wanted to apply and be accepted to an Ivy League school, would it be more advantageous to be a black female, or a caucasion male?

          Wealth redistribution smacks of giving every kid in the class a smiley face instead of a grade. It is a symptom of moral relativism in a world that is afraid to call many things right or wrong. People must be allowed to fail and suffer the consequences. This both a product and cause of freedom.

          “So far, people can make it up-but this is becoming harder and harder. Plus, there is a growing mass of dissatisfied people who increasingly believe that the political and economic system is stacked against them and that their efforts and rule following have not yielded fruit. These folks are not looking for handouts, they are looking for the American dream and are increasingly finding it denied.”

          Most of those people have it much easier than my grandfather. The Wall Street protester types I think you’re speaking of. They should try doing some physical labor. You refuse to accept that Obama’s policies have made things worse. Address this: Has Obama made things more difficult for the average American? Has the American dream suffered because of Obama’s economic policies? The statistics show that the average household income dropped inn the last three years by over $1000 and the misery index is at it’s highest since 1983. Is this because we cut government spending, reduced regulation and fed tinkering in the economy and stopped giving people free government stuff? No–we’ve done more or as much of that in Obama’s term as in any time in the country’s history. And any problems inherent in our system were only made worse when we dumped trillions into failing companies that had no absolute importance in the overall economic structure of America. At least there are very important reasons for having banks not fail. A bad car company is just a bad car company.

          • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 21, 2011 at 1:50 pm

            I agree that racial quotas and preferences are immoral. Discrimination is discrimination.

            Things are great for corporations now and rather lousy for the average American-which makes it rather bizarre that Obama is being hammered by some folks as being anti-business and pushing a socialist agenda. Now if corporations were being taken over by the US military and their resources divided among the people, then that would be another story.

          • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 21, 2011 at 1:55 pm

            I’m reasonably sure it is money-after all, these are poor neighborhoods. Unless you want to say that people who are poor are, perhaps, bad people.

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 21, 2011 at 1:47 pm

          Well, the one gender thing does run afoul of those anti-discrimination laws. But, I’ll need to see the results. I have heard arguments for one-gender schools and this will provide at least some additional information on their effectiveness.

  3. magus71 said, on October 20, 2011 at 9:13 am

    So every time Mike buys a Mac,a kitten dies?

  4. T. J. Babson said, on October 20, 2011 at 11:04 am

    Interesting hypothesis:

    Being on the left means that you divide the world between rich and poor much more than you divide it between good and evil. For the leftist, the existence of rich and poor — inequality — is what constitutes evil. More than tyranny, inequality disturbs the left, including the non-Communist left. That is why so many on the left fell in love with Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez and, at other times, with every left-wing dictator. Non-leftists see these men as thugs; much of the left sees them as fighters for equality. Yes, leftist dictators extinguish freedom and steal land and businesses from the rich — but none of this disturbs most of the left.

    http://townhall.com/columnists/dennisprager/2011/10/18/why_is_class_hatred_morally_superior_to_race_hatred/page/full/

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 20, 2011 at 12:03 pm

      Are you saying that if I am on then left, then I divide the world between the rich and poor more than between good and evil?
      Well, the consequent is false in my case (I am much more about good and evil-I’d rather be around the rich good than the evil poor and around the good poor than the evil rich), so presumably I am not a leftist.

      For me, inequality is not intrinsically evil. Inequality is consistent with justice (and often required by justice). After all people can be rightfully entitled to more or less. To use the obvious example, if I win a race, then I have earned that place and the accolades that go with it. Someone who did worse is still worthy of praise for their efforts, but not entitled to the rewards of first place. I’m all about fair competition and merit based rewards. What I am against is unfair competition, rigged games and unearned rewards.

      I’m against all dictators, whether they try to justify their wicked ways with Marxism, Fascism or whatever. As you note, there are some who have praised such leaders. I regard those people as either ignorant or morally flawed. I recall many debates in grad school over just this issue. You might find this odd, but most of the “lefty” grad students were against people like Castro and Stalin and in favor of democratic systems.

      • T. J. Babson said, on October 20, 2011 at 12:42 pm

        “You might find this odd, but most of the “lefty” grad students were against people like Castro and Stalin and in favor of democratic systems.”

        So who is buying all the Che Guevara gear?

      • T. J. Babson said, on October 20, 2011 at 3:23 pm

        “Are you saying that if I am on then left, then I divide the world between the rich and poor more than between good and evil?
        Well, the consequent is false in my case (I am much more about good and evil-I’d rather be around the rich good than the evil poor and around the good poor than the evil rich), so presumably I am not a leftist.”

        I don’t regard you as a leftist. I regard you as a Democrat who has not yet fully come to grips with how the party has changed since Bill Clinton was president.

        • dhammett said, on October 20, 2011 at 5:18 pm

          As a self-described independent with liberal social leanings and conservative fiscal leanings, I’m curious. When, approximately, did the Democratic Party change? What was it then, and what has it become? Also, is the Republican Party the same as it was during the Clinton era? Or did it change when George Bush was elected in 2000 and 2004? What was it then? What is it now?
          There must have been a few milestones I missed as we were not so successfully dodging domestic and international financial crises over the last 12-15 years.

          • T. J. Babson said, on October 20, 2011 at 5:44 pm

            You’ve been sleeping, dhammett:

            The decline and fall of the Democratic Leadership Council
            By Chris Cillizza

            The news, first reported by Politico’s Ben Smith, that the Democratic Leadership Council will shut down — possibly by the end of the week — marks the end of an era in Democratic party politics.

            “With its CEO Bruce Reed joining the Administration, the DLC Board of Directors has decided to suspend operations while it considers what the next phase of the DLC will be,” DLC founder Al From said in a statement released this afternoon.

            From, along with an up-and-coming politician named Bill Clinton, formed the group in 1985, a reaction to Ronald Reagan’s sweeping presidential win in 1984.

            The DLC’s stated goal? “Creating a dynamic but centrist progressive movement of new ideas rooted in traditional American values,” according to Clinton’s autobiography “My Life”.

            (Among the other heavy hitters included in the early days of the DLC were Sens. Sam Nunn, Chuck Robb, Joe Lieberman and Al Gore as well as governors Lawton Chiles and Gerry Baliles.)

            The zenith of the group’s power came with the election of Clinton as president in 1992 on a heavily centrist platform.

            Among the legislative victories the group claimed during those days included the creation of AmeriCorps, an expansion of the earned income tax credit and welfare reform.

            In the wake of the Clinton years, however, the DLC fell on hard times as the liberal left — primary through the blogosphere — rose in opposition to the presidency of George W. Bush.

            The liberal blogosphere in many ways positioned itself against the DLC, which it cast as a Republican-lite organization that did little to foster the foundational principles of the party.

            http://voices.washingtonpost.com/thefix/democratic-party/the-decline-and-fall-of-the-de.html

            • dhammett said, on October 20, 2011 at 6:54 pm

              Hey, TJ. Send me some information about a robust Republican Leadership Council. Even some info about a viable Republican “leadership” might be helpful.

              If Senators and Congressmen are the “leadership”, polls seem to indicate that the public isn’t too happy being led by anybody in Washington. Currently, Republicans are flocking around Herman Cain, a man who’s got no connection whatsoever with politics. Except that he ran for two offices and lost. And he strengthened the National Restaurant Association’s PAC. And I don’t know about you, but I think PACs are the best example of free speech to come down the pike since the whole idea of free speech was included in our Bill of Rights. 🙂

              Did Cilizza, an opinion columnist say Algore? How many ways has Algore been skewered by Limbaugh over the years? Was AG too centrist for Rush?

          • T. J. Babson said, on October 20, 2011 at 8:52 pm

            dhammett, the House has stepped up and passed a budget. The Senate hasn’t passed a budget in 900 days, even though it is required by law to pass a budget every April. In 2010, the Dems were afraid to pass a budget before the election–and then they were afraid to pass a budget after the election.

            Please show me where I can read the Democratic plan for bringing the federal budget into balance?

  5. magus71 said, on October 20, 2011 at 12:46 pm

    Speaking of wealth redistribution, I’m playing Borderlands. You should start another campaign so you can redistribute your wealth to me..:)

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 21, 2011 at 1:44 pm

      Are you getting Star Wars the Old Republic? We need some DPS (I’m tanking, as always).

      • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 21, 2011 at 5:45 pm

        We’re playing Left For Dead 2 Co-op starting on October 22, after that Crimson Alliance (download from the market-get the full character pack to unlock the full game), and then probably Halo Anniversary. We usually start a bit after 12:00 (Eastern US).

  6. ajmacdonaldjr said, on October 20, 2011 at 2:52 pm

    The poor (and the rich) we will have with us always . . .

    “And while he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper,a as he was reclining at table, a woman came with an alabaster flask of ointment of pure nard, very costly, and she broke the flask and poured it over his head. There were some who said to themselves indignantly, “Why was the ointment wasted like that? For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denariib and given to the poor.” And they scolded her. But Jesus said, “Leave her alone. Why do you trouble her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you want, you can do good for them. But you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for burial. And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.”

    “Then Judas Iscariot, who was one of the twelve, went to the chief priests in order to betray him to them. And when they heard it, they were glad and promised to give him money. And he sought an opportunity to betray him.” (Mark 14:3-11)

    On Poverty

    Poverty is the condition of those who are more of less destitute of temporal goods. There are different kinds of poverty:

    It may be absolute or relative. Absolute poverty is the condition of those who are destitute of all temporal goods, who lack the necessities of life and therefore need the help of others. This condition is better known as indigence, misery, beggary. Relative poverty is the condition of those who have no superfluous goods, having only what is strictly necessary for life. Such is the condition, for example, of an honest common laborer whose wages are barely sufficient to support himself and his family.

    Poverty, both absolute and relative, may be involuntary or voluntary. It is involuntary when it is due to extrinsic conditions, even if such conditions are accepted with perfect resignation. It is voluntary when it is due to the spontaneous surrender of temporal goods. Such is the condition of religious persons who take the vow of poverty in order to be better able to cultivate the virtues and to attain evangelical perfection. This condition of poverty is of counsel, not of precept. One must also bear in mind that for Christianity, poverty is not a state of perfection, but simply a means of perfection. So that the poor person may be perfect or imperfect according to the use they make of their poverty.

    It is also necessary to distinguish between effective and affective poverty. Effective poverty is the actually lack of material goods, be it voluntary or involuntary. Affective poverty (form affection) is the detachment of the heart form whatever wealth one may possess, be it little or great. According to the teachings of Christianity, all have a duty to practice affective poverty because it is necessary to perfection; while effective poverty can only be recommended as a means, not necessary, but useful to Christian perfection. The state of absolute poverty or penury is generally not advisable because it may easily become an occasion of sin and of debasement. To the faithful the Church recommends relative poverty which excludes all superfluities, but not penury, because only in cases of a special vocation and consequently of special help from God can it become a mean to perfection.

    Jesus, who exalted the weak and raised up the oppressed, was not only the redeemer of children and the worker, but also of the poor. He so elevated as to endow it with dignity.

    After the coming of Jesus into the world, there is a complete reversal of values. Poverty is made honorable. It acquires a sacred character and is surrounded with help, with perfection, and veneration. Jesus dignified poverty by example and by his teachings. He is heralded as King of Israel, but is born in a stable and lives as a poor workingman in the little home of Nazareth until he is thirty years of age. One day, one of the scribes, having seen him perform many miracles and thinking that by following him he could acquire wealth and glory, says: “Master, I will follow you wherever you go.” But Jesus disillusions him at once by replying: “The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests, but the son of man has nowhere to lay his head.” (Matt. 8:19-20). The poverty of Jesus reaches its climax on Calvary, where he is stripped of his garments, for which the soldiers cast lots. (Matt. 27:35).

    Jesus practiced poverty first, then preached it. Here, too, he “began to do and to teach.” (Acts 1:1). Here, too, his words receive power and strength from his conduct. Jesus exalts the poor; commands them that they be helped; he identifies himself with them.

    He exalts the poor. In the Old Testament, Christ is heralded as the liberator of the poor: “He shall deliver the poor from the mighty.” (Ps. 71:12). He began his preaching by calling himself he who is sent to “preach the gospel to the poor.” (Luke. 4:18). He sets forth his program in the Sermon on the Mount, and his first words are these: “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt. 5:3). Later on, Jesus confirmed his doctrine, which was strange to the ears of the world, with the story about the rich man and the beggar Lazarus. The rich man dies and lifts up his eyes in the torments of hell. The beggar Lazarus dies and is carried by angles to Abrahams bosom, which was a place of comfort. This story is an exaltation of poverty, at at the same time as condemnation of wealth: during their lifetimes these men either enjoyed the good life (the rich man) or suffered the life of beggary (Lazarus), and after death they received the opposite of what they had enjoyed or suffered while they were alive: the rich man suffers the torments of hell, while the beggar Lazarus enjoys the pleasures of heaven. (Luke. 16:19:22).

    But Jesus was not satisfied with exalting the poor, he commanded that the poor be relieved. He said bluntly to the rich: “Give that which remains as alms.” (Luke. 11:41). One day a rich young man asked Jesus what he should do to obtain eternal life: Jesus said to him: “If you will be perfect, go sell what you have and give it to the poor, then you will have treasures in heaven.” (Matt. 19:21).

    Jesus did more: he identified himself with the poor: On the day of the Last Judgement, he will speak these words to the elect: “Truly I say to you as long as you did it for one of the least of these my brethren, you have done it for me.” (Matt. 25:40). Oh the dignity of the poor! Hidden in them is the Lord himself incognito!

    Imitating the example of the Redeemer, the Church has always had a special concern for the poor and the needy, who are her firstborn and authentic children in the family of God. This care began with the dawn of the Church. The apostles, in addition to their strictly religious functions, performed works of charity and relief, at first personally, and late through the ministry of the deacons of the Church, who were commissioned “to serve at the tables” of the poor and of the widows. (Acts 6:1-4). In those primitive times of the early Church of Jerusalem “the multitude of believers had bit one heart and one soul. For as many as were owners of lands and houses sold them, and brought the price of the things they had sold to the apostles, and distribution was made to every one, according as they had need.” (Acts 4:32-35). Throughout the centuries how many institutions of charity have sprung from the bosom of the Church: almshouses, old age shelters, institutions for the disabled and for the sick…it may be said that the history of the Church is the history of charity itself.

    It has always been the teaching and mind of the Church that charity should be not only a contribution of money but of one’s self: a charity that ministers not to the body but to the soul. “The greatest temptation of an age that calls itself social, in which, besides the Church, the nation, the state, the cities, and other public bodies attend to many social problems, is that persons, even among the faithful, when the poor man knocks at their door, simply send him to the Department, to the Office, to the Organization, figuring that their personal obligation has been sufficiently satisfied by their contribution to those institutions in the form of donations. No doubt the needy person would then receive your help in that other way. But often he counts on you, at least for a word of kindness and of comfort from you. Your charity must resemble God’s, who came in person to bring us help.”

    On Wealth

    The principles of Christianity concerning poverty set forth above should be complimented by the teachings of the Gospels concerning material goods and the use we should make of them. God told the first couple: “Fill the earth and subdue it; and rule over the fishes of the sea and the fouls of the air and all living creatures.” (Gen. 1:28). Thus did God give to all humankind the right to occupy the earth, to till its soil, to enjoy its fruits and to make the very animals serve their uses and needs (with due dignity and respect). In sum, he gave us the right to use all material goods as means for the preservation and conservation of life.

    But material goods not only serve to satisfy the legitimate needs of life, they also serve to satisfy desires and provide comforts and pleasures. That is why they are so easily abused by people. All people have the right to possess and enjoy the goods necessary for life. The right to life, indeed, carries with it the right to the possession of material goods. Here we should, however, point out, that material goods are unevenly distributed. This accounts for the social phenomenon of poverty, which we have already examined, and the contrary phenomenon of wealth, which we will examine here.

    Wealth is the condition of those who possess abundant means, beyond what is sufficient for life. We also give the name wealth to the goods themselves that produce wealth. How must we look upon wealth in the light of Christianity? What are the teachings of Christ and the Church concerning its use and its distribution? The young man who came to Jesus and asked him: “Good Master, what good work shall I do that I may have life everlasting?” Jesus replied to him saying: “Keep the commandments of God.” The young man responded: “All these I have kept from my childhood until today, yet what is lacking in me?” And Jesus answered him: “If you will be perfect, go sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come and follow me.” (Matt. 19:16-21). This, however, is a counsel, not a universal precept. Jesus wanted his apostles to abandon everything: home, their few belongings, wife and children, in order to follow him. But among the disciples of Jesus during his apostolic travels, we find also some pious women, “who used to provide for them out of their means.” (Luke. 8:1-3). To these he does not enjoin absolute poverty. Lazarus of Bethany, was rich, and yet Jesus call him his friend. (John. 11:11). (This is the Lazarus whom Jesus raised from the dead, not the beggar Lazarus mentioned above.)

    The Gospel tells us how that the rich young man, upon hearing the final proposal of Jesus, “went away sad, for he had great possessions.” And Jesus then said to him: “Truly I say to you, that a rich person shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt. 19:22-23).

    Riches make it difficult to enter the kingdom of heaven:

    Because by affording us many comforts here below, they more easily make us forget God and heaven

    Because they are afford us many means of gratifying our most exigent and dangerous passions.

    Because they are likely to render us proud and covetous by making us neglect the grave duties that riches impose.

    Here is how St. Paul, faithful interpreter of Christ’s mind, comments on the advantages of poverty, contrasting them with the dangers of riches: “But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and certainly we can carry nothing out; but having food and wherewith to be clothed, with these things we are content. For they that will be rich fall into temptations and into the snare of the devil, and into many unprofitable and hurtful desires, which men in destruction and perdition. For the desire of money is the root of all evils, which some coveting have erred from the faith, and have entangled themselves in many sorrows.” (1 Tim. 6:6-10).

    “With difficulty, “ said Jesus, “will a rich man enter the kingdom of heaven.” But difficult does not mean impossible. The rich man, too, therefore can and must be saved. Indeed, he can attain the highest degree of perfection, making good use of his wealth. But in order to be saved, one must make proper use of riches. For that purpose Jesus teaches that it is necessary:

    To keep one’s heart detached from earthly goods, that is to be poor in spirit if not in fact. The later is required a few, the former of all. “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” (Matt. 5:3), said our Lord: and poor in spirit are also the rich whose hearts are not attached to their riches. Jesus said: “You cannot serve God and money” (namely riches). (Matt. 6:24). He did not say that one cannot possess, but that one cannot serve wealth. That is, we may not make a master or an idol of money, sacrificing everything to it, even our conscience. We may possess money without being possessed by it.

    Before God we are to consider ourselves not as owner, but only as managers of our goods. “Or what have you that you have not received?” asks the apostle Paul. (1 Cor. 4:7). The absolute master of everything is God, who grants us the use of some of his goods. Of this use we must render him a strict account: “Give an account of your stewardship” (see: Luke. 16:1-8)

    Furthermore, he wants us to give what is superfluous to the poor. Christ tell us: “he that has two coats, let him give to him that has none; and he that has meat, let him do in like manner.” (Luke. 3:11). The divine Redeemer is even more absolute with this precept of his: “Give that which remains as alms” (Luke. 11:41); in other words, that which is not necessary for the support of one’s self and one’s family, according to each one’s social condition. When necessity and convenience have been satisfied, it is our duty to give what is left over to the poor. God has blessed us with goods so that we may do good.

    Pius XII, in commenting upon Rerum Novarum, said: “The goods created by God for all peoples must be made available to all in an equitable manner, according to the principles of justice and charity. The economic wealth of a people does not consist of abundance of goods, but rather in a fair distribution of goods.”

    See: http://ajmacdonaldjr.wordpress.com/2011/10/01/the-social-principles-of-the-catholic-church/

    • dhammett said, on October 20, 2011 at 4:19 pm

      The last two paragraphs illustrate the core of whatever problems may exist with wealth and its (re)distribution.

      If everyone could just agree on the meanings terms like “superfluous” and “necessary” and “fair distribution”and “justice” and “abundance” as they apply to themselves and others, eventually we’d reach a wealth equilibrium.

  7. magus71 said, on October 21, 2011 at 12:05 am

    Another good article:

    http://www.forbes.com/sites/billfrezza/2011/10/18/the-fundamental-fallacies-of-macroeconomics/

    I’ve said for a long time that it doesn’t appear most economists understand the economy. They can spout lots of stats but many of them argue from opposite points of view. Seems to me if you don’t understand something you should leave it alone until you figure it out.

  8. […] Can Everyone be Wealthy? (aphilosopher.wordpress.com) […]


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