As I start off on my way towards my million dollar goal, I often wonder - is it moral to accumulate a million dollars?
You see, I just chanced upon a Vox article, asking the exact same question: "Is wealth immoral?" I thought it asked some interesting questions (in bold), which I want to think through and try answering:
"Is it moral to hold on to any excess private wealth under capitalism? Where is the line?
- Yes, it can get quite technical isn't it? Because one man's poor is another man's rich. A living wage in a developed country is a rich man's lifestyle in a developing country. Everyone has different benchmarks to start with, so who is to say which one is more right than the other? Even if we restrict the comparison to within your own country, there's still the question of how much is considered excess, or enough. You can say someone who's single needs less than someone with a family, but anytime we put a number to that and start controlling their upper ceiling, it starts to devolve into autocracies and dystopian versions of the future, doesn't it? And how about being rewarded for the effort and talent you brought to the game? Isn't that at least fair?
"Does it matter how that wealth was accumulated?" Fossil fuels, invented something useful, medical doctor, made it off stock? "Is there a moral way to accumulate a fortune under capitalism?"
- I think I have some sort of a stand on this, shaky as it might be. As much as possible, I'd like to make wealth ethically. I'd like to believe ethical wealth creation is possible. That means people up and down the value chain within my sphere of influence gets compensated fairly. I say as much as possible because in a large, complex, specialised system like our economy today, an individual will find it impossible to be 100% sure that fair compensation is done all the way down. We all use our smartphones for business these days - are those factory workers compensated fairly? I really don't know. Our modern society creates more degrees of separation than an individual actor in the system can access and track. There's been efforts in that direction though - conflict-free diamonds and fair trade products movement come to mind. How robust these new systems are are still up for debate, but they are probably our best bet for ethical wealth creation and consumption to date.
It's hard to be black and white about it. Some industries are also clearer than others on the 'moral' spectrum. Fossil fuels - iffy these days, considering climate change. Useful inventions - for sure! Being a doctor - yes, worthy in most cases. Stocks - hmmm, depends. Ultimately, I think it falls back on how accountable you are for your actions when making wealth; whether it was made in a socially and ecologically responsible way. @naval had tweeted about accountability: "Understand that ethical wealth creation is possible. If you secretly despise wealth, it will elude you. Embrace accountability, and take business risks under your own name. Society will reward you with responsibility, equity, and leverage."
"Every billionaire is a policy failure. In a system that produces a handful of people with billions of dollars while hundreds of millions of people still lack access to basic human needs like health care and affordable housing...the question isn't what billionaires should do with "their" money. It's how to enact policies that prevent any one person from concentrating that much wealth and power in the first place. How can we change our current (immoral) system to make it work better for everyone?"
- wow the first line about "every billionaire is a policy failure" was powerful. If we accept the rules of the game (of capitalism), then the existence of billionaires is legitimized, by the rules. So are the rules broken then? A perverted anomaly of an imperfect system? It's easy to moralise and say that nobody needs a billion dollars. How about a million dollars? Or $10k? It goes back to the first question, of where is the line. Beyond such pontifications, what can we as individuals do? What small part can I play to contribute to change the system to work better for everyone?
I must admit, I have no answers to all these questions. It makes me concerned about this goal of mine. Is it a net positive to the world, or a net negative? I think it's worthwhile to be continually asking these questions throughout the process of wealth creation, and never feeling entitled to it, but to use it with humility and gratitude. Perhaps setting a pragmatic bar where my family and I have enough for a comfortable life and to fulfil our dreams, and then using the rest in ecologically/socially responsible ways, like charity, social good investments, or carbon offsets. It's an imperfect solution for sure, so I'm happy to learn and iterate.
All ears to any ideas you might have too!
Some more thoughts based on the discussion in the previous comments thread, which helped me inch towards a tiny bit more clarity:
Maybe excess wealth is morally shaky only at the extremes
If money is ethically made, adds value at scale and is a net positive for the world, then by all means one should keep it. I think this should be alright for 'reasonable' amounts of money. Because what's right versus what's wrong is often on a continuum, isn't it? It's rare to have clear cut black and white, only all greys in between. So perhaps is difficult to draw a line where it's considered wrong, precisely because it's a continuum, it's all shades of grey. Perhaps we can agree that what's a norm is really a range, where it could be from $10k to say, $10mil (as suggested recently by AOC)? Perhaps then it's at the extremes of billions where the debate opens up. Maybe research can be done to study the effects of wealth hoarding on the economy and society's wellbeing. Even if the money is ethically made, we can probably all agree that at some point, hoarding a huge amount of wealth becomes a net negative for everyone else. Even if inequality is inevitable, vast inequality isn't.
We don't need to embrace full-on socialism communism......But the floor needs to come up and the ceiling needs to come down. Most people know that's true, whatever their official "politics" may be, and it's becoming increasingly difficult to deny it. - Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
Is wealth a zero sum game, or a positive sum game?
But all that talk about the 1% hoarding wealth at the expense of the 99% also assumes that wealth is a zero sum game, where there's only a limited amount to go around, where one is worse off if another hoards. If wealth is a positive sum game even at the extreme of billions, then these questions about immoral wealth are nought. I remember Naval mentioned that wealth is a positive sum game actually, contrary to popular opinion. He said that if wealth was a zero sum game, we'll all still be trading pieces of wood and shells. Makes sense...but....🤔needs more thought.
What if Gandhi is a billionaire?
If Gandhi, Mother Theresa, or the Dalai Lama had a billion dollars, would that be okay? It sounds okay, isn't it? Because society is comfortable for people of character to hold wealth because we trust that they will use it for good. So integrity, character, and good ethics and values are better proxies for one's 'worthiness' to the wealth that he/she holds. So it's not so much that absolute wealth is immoral, but the subjective moral standing one has that decides whether one is worthy or not to wealth?
I'm trying to think if we know anyone who's a person of character and a billionaire... any names come to mind?