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.

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joe bernstein
joe bernstein
12 years ago

So just one question-when do the Kennedys start paying their share?
Increased taxes always seem to fall on middle class people.The people Kate Brewster and Linda Katz hate because we won’t be likely clients of theirs to perpetuate their existence as “advocates”.

Monique
Editor
12 years ago

We would be remiss if we failed to note that the comparisons to rape and murder are erroneous, shrill and offensive.
“… let us begin by pointing to the halcyon Eisenhower years when the effective tax on the millionaires was, according to the U.S. Department of the Treasury, 85.5 percent, and a representative government was thought by many to have both a redistributive and a regulatory role.”
(So much is revealed by the adjective “halcyon”.) Sir, respectfully, the “many” were wrong and were proven so.

pitcher
pitcher
12 years ago

So what is the salary for a Superior Court judge nowadays? For a lawyer? For a law school prof?
Isn’t it interesting that it is often the rich who make these claims of how “wrong” it is to be rich, yet they continue on with their six-figure salaries. If he wants to be consistent, why didn’t he say “no thanks” to the salaries offered and instead live on $30,000 a year, like the others that he thinks he’s advocating for?

rhody
rhody
12 years ago

When I hear politicians start talking about morality, I grab my helmet, visor and and old pair of coveralls, ’cause the hazardous material’s about to fly.

OldTimelefty
12 years ago

Monique,
A wild assertion that “the many were proven wrong”. How do you base that statement? Deregulation has been the rule until the recent economic collapse, and Obama has uttered the phrase “spread the wealth around” to a very loud chorus of Rightist nays. So, on what basis do you say that the many have been proven wrong?
OldTimeLefty

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