Is wealth really a good thing? Or rather, is wealth really necessary? I suppose in the capitalist system that we’ve set up it’s necessary. But overall, is wealth essential to the advancement of society? I would argue that the very idea of wealth is entirely unnecessary and even disadvantageous in certain ways.
I first started thinking about this while talking with a good friend about economic policy. As any good capitalist will tell you, wealth is an incentive. And indeed, that is the current paradigm. We go to work to earn a paycheck, people invest to turn a profit, and corporations are responsible for generating increasing amounts of wealth for shareholders. When I stopped and thought about this, the idea of wealth as an incentive left a rather sour taste in my mouth. So we invest, create, and innovate to be rewarded with money, with the promise of being wealthy? Isn’t that the same logic that a dog uses when it does a trick on command for a biscuit?
And then I started thinking about what being “rich” really means. Becoming wealthy is part of the American dream, isn’t it? We extoll the rich, put them on pedestals, admire their wealth, and look at them as the paragons of success. But ultimately, why is being rich good? What good does being wealthy do for the individual? The more I thought about it, the more I wondered what the point of having more money than you can spend is. The only thing I could think of is giving away most of it to charity–at which point I’d have to ask what was the point of being wealthy at all?
In my opinion, the idea of wealth speaks to our advancement (or lack thereof) as individuals and as a species. I understand why some people feel a need for wealth, for the accumulation of things. From an evolutionary standpoint, such behavior was once advantageous to survival. Early man had to stockpile things of value–namely food–because he could never be sure when he would eat next. As time goes on and technology advances, it makes sense that man would be preoccupied with acquiring land–the means of producing food, of having water, etc. On a very basic biological level, having wealth could attract potential mates, since it indicates a better chance of survival.
But do we really need that current paradigm? A squirrel spends most of its time collecting and hiding nuts–more nuts than it could ever eat–because that’s its survival strategy. Other animals will find and eat the nuts, so it needs to collect more than it needs to make up for the losses. But really, aren’t most rich people essentially acting like squirrels? Spending the majority of their lives collecting money–more money than they’ll ever be able to spend–and hiding it in offshore accounts, dummy corporations, and other tax shelters?
And I think that’s what sticks out the most to me–wealth is an outdated concept. It’s not necessary at this point in civilization. It’s an anachronism. It appeals to ancestral parts of our brain that we no longer need to use. I would think–hope, even–that at this point in the development of mankind that we wouldn’t need to be financially motivated to do things anymore. That the incentive to do things would be the betterment of communities, society, and civilization as a whole. Dr. Jonas Salk refused to patent the polio vaccine–a move that would have made him super wealthy–because he believed that things like that belonged to all mankind. Where has that line of thinking gone?
It’s still out there, obviously. I’m not trying to argue that philanthropists don’t exist. Of course they do. But they’re eclipsed by the Donald Trumps of the world, and by the millions and billions of people who see wealth in the movies, on TV, etc and aspire to it for no other reason than to simply have things, material possessions. People who have been sold the notion that having wealth increases happiness. And to a certain degree they’re right. Studies have shown that happiness does indeed increase as income increases…but only up to a certain point. And that number is nowhere close to what most people would think. It’s not in the billions, or the millions, or even the hundreds of thousands. It’s about $75k/year. That’s the magic number, folks. That’s the number that researchers and individuals have identified as what it takes to be happy. To be secure, to be able to provide for a family, and to be able to pursue interests and hobbies.
Ultimately the wealth-as-happiness idea doesn’t serve anyone, because as long as everyone is competing for wealth, there will be losers. And the more people accumulate wealth, the less there is for everyone else. It’s a zero sum game. And before you argue that it isn’t, practically speaking it is. We’re capable of generating new wealth–but who do you think gets the bulk of that new wealth? That’s right–the people who are already wealthy. Not the poor folk at the bottom.
We’re at a point in history right now where our civilization is at a crossroads. There is enough money, enough wealth in the world right now, to give every adult person in the world $49,000/year. So a family with two parents or adults in the household would be making $98,000/year, which is well above that magic $75,000 mark. I can already hear people crying out at their monitors, “BUT IF WE TAKE AWAY MONEY WHY WILL PEOPLE GO TO WORK?!” My answer to that is that’s flawed reasoning from the get-go, and a way of looking at things that’s outdated and unnecessary.
Imagine a system whereby tomorrow morning at 9:00 am all of the wealth in the world–about $223 trillion US dollars by current estimates–was redistributed to the figures I listed above. Imagine a world where instead of being motivated by some temporary financial incentive, like the dog is motivated by a treat, people were motivated by intellectual curiosity, by a sense of exploration, by the pursuit of knowledge and the betterment of society. Imagine a world where people didn’t need to have 8 children because they could afford access to medical care, providing them with contraception, and because they had better access to education. The population would plateau (and maybe even dip a little), while the amount of wealth driven by production and innovation would only increase–thereby increasing everyone’s share of the pie. Instead of being siloed into the “me-me-me” mentality of material wealth, people would start thinking about each other, and what benefits everyone–not just their profit margins.
Sounds fanciful, I know. But really, the only thing that has stopped us from organizing the planet in such a way is ourselves. There’s no rule about how we have to set up our economy, our societies, and our incentives–we just make that shit up. And in the past, people made it up out of the survival instincts of our ancestors. But culture changes, values change. Personally, I hope they shift away from the egocentric philosophies to which material wealth speaks.