Taking Wealth Morally
By all means, let’s declare the immorality of gargantuan wealth. Every story of catastrophe and dire need must make the rightly ordered person marvel at the spiritual putrefaction of those who hoard their millions and billions. How could a man of clear conscience sift money idly through his fingers in such sums as could effect salvation for untold thousands? How detrimental to a woman’s soul to ignore those who suffer in her time while she looks across potentially infinite generations of her own progeny who will be freed from the necessity of earning.
Let’s not be squeamish in admitting the ugliness of even the passive greed that allows wealth to amass in obscene amounts under one’s name, as if it jangled together by some sort of natural force of economic gravity. Let’s assert a moral duty to cast those riches back out into the economy as both a charitable and a productive force.
But what then?
Inasmuch as the actions that lead to wealth — earning, investing, saving — are not immoral (indeed, are generally positive), the community’s legitimate complaint is of the excessive proportion. Hoarding amounts that could never be spent is an iniquitous triviality when weighed against mouths that are never fed. On the other hand, the accumulation of vast wealth enables a higher degree of risk in investment, whereby society can benefit from the gamble, and a higher degree of conservation of property, whereby possessions that might otherwise be divided and drained are instead preserved. The initial difficulties, therefore, are determining how we ought to balance competing goods and who ought to be empowered to pass judgment.
In his May 25 op-ed in the Providence Journal (“The immorality of private wealth“), retired Superior Court judge and current law professor Stephen J. Fortunato, Jr., cites the amassment of wealth among such other “immoral” activities as “murder, rape, theft,” running red lights, violating OSHA standards, “muggings and convenience store holdups.” Moreover, his prescription is not the social opprobrium with which we might respond to an adult who whispers obscenities to children, but high taxes on the rich by a government with “a redistributive and a regulatory role.” In short, the aptly named jurist unsurprisingly treats immorality and illegality as if they ought to be equivalent.
Thus, in answer to the above-described difficulties, Fortunato puts forward our representative democracy as economic arbiter. The government will decide how much is too much for what purposes. Our legislative, executive, and judicial triumvirate will draw a line above which elected and appointed officials allocate the appropriate usage of monetary wealth — this much to conserve open space, this much to support research, this much to preserve arts and culture, this much toward the welfare of our society’s poor.
Unfortunately, with money flowing along this path, the difficulties can only compound. Previously, the transfer of wealth involved the relatively simple transaction of a provider’s persuading a consumer to part with dollars, whether for luxuries, investments, or the emotional balm of charity. Now, the government has translated the wealth into power — greatly magnified by its aggregation — and muddied the judgment of its dispersal.
Parties begin to petition government officials to expend the public largesse on their preferred goods. The petitioners convert some of the power back into cash by way of campaign contributions or other perks of office (or perks available upon leaving office). They may promise moral gratification and burnished legacies. They may concentrate the flexed muscle of voters.
None of which is immoral, of itself, but observe what has happened: The economic power that exists naturally in any society has been overlapped in the same stratum as the legal and police power with which we vest government. The same segment of the community that can, to some degree, dictate behavior under threat of criminal prosecution can increasingly manipulate economic behavior under threat of regulation and confiscation. The one entity empowered to take money by force is increasingly a source of money for politically powerful lobbies.
In short, the point at which power and money flow together has greater gravity for corruption, and there is less independent power (in the form of independent wealth) counterbalancing it. Worse still, to the degree to which money is power, those with more are the ones ultimately increasing their control as the government asserts authority over the flow of capital and the determination of what and whom to tax and regulate.
So yes, let’s conspire to take money from the rich and spread it across the society, but let’s consider the possibility that the only way actually to accomplish that end is to empower those in lower economic tiers to take the wealth for themselves — not by force or democratic assertions of power, but through persuasion, production, and competition, which is to say through freedom and economic ingenuity.