One of the more commonly debated passages from the Bible concerns Jesus’ response to criticism of a woman for anointing him with expensive oil. The woman was criticized on the grounds that the oil should have been sold to help the poor. Jesus, of course, responded “The poor you will always have with you.” Many from across the political spectrum have misinterpreted this statement as a sign of Christ’s lack of concern with the problems of poverty. As anyone who takes seriously the remainder of Jesus’ response (“but you will not always have me”) knows, it was a statement of the need for all of us to be concerned most with higher goods. Our duty to the poor, like our duty to God, is perpetual. But the duty to God is higher. Indeed, from it we derive and recognize our duty to the poor.
There is also in this statement a recognition that inequalities of material well-being will always be with us. Try as we might, some will be less well off than others, and it would be folly to allow our desire to help the poor lead us to lose sight of all other goods, or cause us to destroy our economic system and our society. Biblical wisdom cautions against utopian schemes of material distribution.
But what, then, of the rich? No matter how much the government might try, some people, due to luck, talent, hard work, bad values, or (most likely) some combination of these, will amass large amounts of assets. And no government program will ever eliminate any of these means to wealth—including the final one, bad values. Even one who eschews lying, cheating, and stealing, may choose to ignore his family and take perfectly legal advantage of those around him in pursuit of wealth, and may succeed. Even in the most extreme eras of Soviet rule, for example, those who were best at amassing power also amassed country homes, cars, and other luxuries.
So the question is not whether we will have rich people in our midst, but what kind of rich people they will be. Obviously, prefect virtue is not to be found in this world, let alone among those with the drive and power that goes with great wealth. But societies can deal with the wealthy in ways that are better or worse designed to see that they serve the public good. For example, the so-called Robber Barons of the late nineteenth century were often quite unsavory characters. Andrew Carnegie, often seen as among the most virtuous of these, began building his fortune, not with the sweat of his brow, but with insider trading, capitalizing on his access to inside information from the office in which he worked. And the federal government did much to empower Carnegie and others of his ilk through its assault on state and local law (in the name of “national markets”) and its extension of the great privilege of limited liability to corporations with no meaningful charter or goal of existence beyond maximizing profits.
Despite his delusions of wisdom and virtue (all too common among the rich and powerful) Carnegie at least helped make something—steel. Steel is essential to the building of useful things like railroads and bridges. And, on the whole, the ability to build more railroads and bridges was a development of benefit to Americans. There is, in fact, room for debate on this point, but I would at least observe that Carnegie made an important product more accessible and, whether the nation put it to good use or not, his amassing of obscene wealth was connected with something of value.
Such is not the case with all too many of our rich today. Whether with “junk bonds,” “securitized” mortgages, or other instruments “derived” by lumping together loans of highly questionable value, suckering people into “investing” in various crap shoots has become a major source of wealth generation.
The same culture of greed has transformed our professions—the people who used to make rather good livings and enjoy the respect of their neighbors because they provided important services that required learning, training, and wisdom. Now, of course, too many doctors and lawyers aren’t satisfied to be comfortable and respected, they want to be very rich, and don’t care, apparently, if they are hated. The results for the professionals, increasingly socialized medicine and massive layoffs at big law firms (which themselves have come to resemble pyramid schemes) are dismal, but not nearly so dismal as the results for a society that has lost honest, trustworthy professionals.
Then, of course, there is what passes for entrepreneurship these days. Know how to make bad food cheap? Franchise it! That is, make people pay you for the privilege of using your logo, buying your cheap ingredients and equipment, and following your rules. As with most pyramid schemes, they might make some real money if they are lucky enough to get in early, get a good location, and survive the flood of competition you create by selling more franchises. Otherwise, they will be underpaid employees. But, hey, you could make a billion dollars, so you must be a smart, good guy, right?
Every society needs hard-working people concerned to better their lot by being useful to their fellows. Every society must tolerate the occasional sharpster who takes advantage of others to line his own pockets. But a society that encourages this type is in trouble. And a society that spends over a trillion dollars of (borrowed) taxpayer money to save the house and art collection in the Hamptons that the sharpsters bought with their ill-gotten gains is far along the road to ruin.
It is typical of the of the way our system now works that a Republican administration would bail out these people, and its succeeding, Democratic administration would codify the whole thing. And so we have a massive “reform” bill that doesn’t address the underlying issue (fake securities) and instead sees to it that those who have gained positions of power and privilege will enjoy these in a more seemly manner from now on—safe behind new barriers to entry, of course.
Any system can be manipulated. And there will always be some people who think they have a right to manipulate it. The trick is to skew the system toward actual production of actual things that people need, to keep the gaming and its profits to a minimum. Washington can’t stem the tide of corruption because it is too big and too distant from the consequences of its actions and regulations. It’s systems must be overly complicated and liable to manipulation. A good society, one like ours used to be, must keep its regulatory systems simple, keep enforcement local, and discourage the development of enterprises large enough to abandon their own local communities. That means, among other things, relying more on local custom than regulatory structures and refusing to neuter states and localities in the name of “national markets.” The rich will always be with us, but they will only be FOR us if they are our neighbors, working to buy, make, and sell goods among people whose fate and way of life they share.
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