The Morality of Money
I woke up this morning to a message from a friend with a link to this article. The article is titled “It’s Basically Just Immoral to Be Rich.”
The essential argument that the author makes is this: “Because every dollar you have is a dollar you’re not giving to somebody else, the decision to retain wealth is a decision to deprive others.”
The article was aimed at the millionaires and billionaires, but when I first read it, I felt a wave a shame wash over me. I felt like the author articulated the guilt that I often feel about the privilege that I have been born into.
Yes, I worked hard to get to the place that I am today. But I also grew up with two extremely loving parents who pushed me to learn and grow and travel – and had the means to help me with all of those things.
My concerns growing up were not about where my next meal was coming from, but where my next vacation was going to be. I acknowledge that privilege every day, and know that I would not and could not live the life that I am living without that foundation.
Reading this article made me question all of my life decisions. Maybe I should donate everything I own besides the clothes on my back? After all – aren’t there people that need it more than I?
However, when I looked back at the article a second time, I felt more anger than anything else. For the author to say that every dollar I have that I am not giving to somebody else is causing their suffering is a completely unjust claim to make (and not just because the Buddhist in me says that suffering is inevitable anyway).
Yes, I know that there is an extreme inequality in the world. Millions of people die because they can’t afford food, housing or medical care and that is terrible and heartbreaking. But it is overwhelmingly simplistic to believe that if I send a couple hundred dollars to the hungry family down the street from me, then everything would be sunshine and daisies.
Because the reality is this: People don’t always make the decision that is best for their life.
It’s the reason I had four cookies for lunch today, even though I knew it would be better to eat the salad in the fridge. It’s the reason people spend their paychecks on video games and liquor instead of doctor visits and a gym membership.
I wish we lived in a world where everybody was rational and smart with their life decisions. But that simply isn’t the case.
So even if we had the means to evenly distribute all the money in the world (which, in itself, is a near-impossible feat), we could never sustain that system. Some people will always choose to spend their money wisely, and some people will always choose not to.
Now, I want to be very clear about something. I know that there are millions of people in the world that are living without clean water, clean air, and the food they need to nourish themselves by no fault of their own.
There are huge problems in the world that have nothing to do with any individual decisions or actions. But I don’t think that by having some extra cash in my wallet means that I am, to quote the article, “directly causing that poverty.”
So I think it is completely unfair for the author to suggest that.
I’m not saying the rich should hoard all of their money and spend it on islands and beach houses. I do think the wealth inequality in the world is a major problem, and it’s not fair that because I was lucky enough to be born into a white, middle-class family in America, I get to go to sleep with a full stomach while another girl born on the same day as me in Kenya has to fight for clean water.
What I am saying is that the author’s idea of a “maximum moral income” (a limit to how much a single person can obtain at a certain time) is not the one-step-to-fix-all solution. It’s not a solution at all.
Some people in the world have the brains, the guts, and the circumstances to take $1,000 and turn it into $10,000. And when they do that repeatedly, they become very wealthy. And those wealthy people have a lot of potential to help those in need. But in order to do that, they need the initial $1,000.
So if we force people to give up everything beyond what they absolutely need, there would be no room for people to experiment and grow.
But wait, isn't it unfair that those people were given the opportunity to play around with $1,000?
Yes, yes it is unfair. But that is the world that we live in. So that person can either freeze in guilt and wallow about their privilege or they can seize the chance they've been given and make a real difference in the world.
Money is only addressing the symptoms of the problem anyway. If we really want to help people, we should actually help them. We should teach them how to manage their finances, and how to take $1,000 and turn it into $10,000 themselves (and then, ideally, give them that $1,000).
And yes, that’s where we need the help of the millionaires and billionaires. To create and fund those programs.
I know the author of that article has his heart in the right place. I know he only wants what’s best for the world. And what's best for the world simply isn't happening right now.
I’m not sure what the call to action is to get the billionaires to begin creating and funding those programs. But I’m pretty sure it doesn’t start with a vitriolic article about how they are the root of all evil.
So, in the meantime, let's all do what we can to make the world a better place. Whether you have a four million dollars in your bank account or four, you can still do your part to improve the world around you. Smile at a stranger. Dance whenever you feel like it. Incorporate compassion and forgiveness into all of your interactions. It's not the the one-step-to-fix-all solution, but it's a good place to start.