Humanism and Wealth

July 12, 2012

There’s been a lot of talk in the secular blogosphere recently about sex and gender issues. This is an important set of topics, but just for a change of pace, I thought I would bring up another subject that can rev up our engines, namely money.

I thought of this topic the other day when I listened to Mitt Romney talk about how Obama wanted to tax “job creators.” Romney and many Republicans studiously avoid using words like “rich” or “wealthy,” and since Romney has at least half a brain, it’s not because he actually believes wealthy people are necessarily individuals who create employment opportunities. He avoids using these terms because he recognizes that there is some resentment, mixed with envy, toward the rich—a class of which he is indisputably a member.

The resentment toward the wealthy is unlike the animosity felt toward other classes, for example, racial minorities, LGBT individuals, atheists and so forth. Yes, there is antipathy toward the wealthy; however, hardly anyone would pass up the opportunity to join the ranks of the wealthy. And who doesn’t like to have a wealthy friend?

This ambivalence toward wealth is shared by some humanists, and this ambivalence can manifest itself when representatives of secular groups court donors. It’s no secret that almost all secular organizations rely heavily on donations, and although all donations are welcome, a check for $10,000, $50,000, or more will receive a very warm greeting, indeed. Nonetheless, once upon a time I was visiting the home of a wealthy individual along with some (non-CFI) acquaintances. Without getting into unnecessary details, let’s just say this individual’s house was enormously spacious and spectacularly beautiful. The visit was quite pleasant: much friendly discussion, much graciousness from our host. Upon taking leave, another member of the party whispered to me, “This person’s wealth is obscene.” Hmmm, I thought. Would you care to share that sentiment with our host?

OK, let’s acknowledge that the wealth of others can inspire some irrational, emotional reactions, and move on to consider what a rational position toward wealth and the wealthy would look like. I’ll proceed by first removing from contention some ill-advised policy choices.

Aim for Complete Egalitarianism.
Two questions: How? Why? If we confiscated everyone’s assets, redistributed them, and gave every adult equal shares of these assets, we would need another round of redistribution within 24 hours if we wanted to maintain rigid equality. Either that or give absolute power to some Khmer Rouge-style government. Any economy above subsistence level will eventually produce income inequality.

Moreover, there’s no intrinsic value to either equality of income or equality of wealth. Everyone should have the same civil rights and fundamental liberties, but financial resources have only an indirect connection to such rights and liberties. (This connection will be discussed further below.)

Aim to Reduce Drastically Income/Wealth Inequality.
Again: How? Why? We could have an income tax that is very steeply progressive, combined with some sort of tax on accumulated wealth, and we probably could implement these measures short of establishing a totalitarian regime, but would this be beneficial?

Most people are motivated to work harder and to take risks pursuing some innovation by the prospect of rewards. The reward does not necessarily have to be financial—simple recognition of one’s accomplishments can be very satisfying—but financial rewards are important for many. One doesn’t have to buy into flat-tax rhetoric (which I find absurd) to realize that too high a tax rate will work as a disincentive to many, and we would all suffer as a result. At least in the developed countries, our absolute standard of living has increased tremendously in the last century, and at least part of that increase is attributable to improvements in technology and services—improvements which made a number of innovative people very wealthy.

Moreover, just as there’s no intrinsic merit in absolute equality in income or wealth, there’s no intrinsic merit in a drastic reduction in disparities in income and wealth. My dignity as an individual is not affected by the fact that some others have 50, 500, or even 5000 times my assets.

Aim to Reduce the Political Power of the Wealthy.
Now we’re getting somewhere. To paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, it does me no injury if my neighbor has one house or twenty houses; it neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg. On the other hand, it can do me injury if my neighbor uses her financial muscle to sway an election and make my vote meaningless.

Furthermore, it’s not just a question of affecting the choice between two or three candidates. The influence of the wealthy can (and does) extend to determining which candidates stand a ghost of a chance of being nominated. It takes a ton of cash to become a viable candidate for Congress, let alone for president. One can’t usually raise this money without the assistance of wealthy individuals.

Or, nowadays, corporations. The Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. FEC exacerbated the disproportionate influence of moneyed interests by holding that the First Amendment prohibits the government from restricting political expenditures by corporations. This novel extension of unqualified free speech rights to entities that are not natural persons (can a corporation serve in the military?) makes little sense legally and threatens to further distort our political process. As Justice Stevens recognized in his dissenting opinion, corporations have long been considered to have “distinctive corrupting potential.”

In short, wealth, whether held by individuals or artificial aggregates such as corporations, can have harmful effects on our political process and, therefore, can undermine the standing of the non-wealthy (most of us) as members of the political community.

I am not going to propose any specific legislative (or constitutional) solution here, but I do believe measures must be adopted to limit the political clout of the wealthy.

The way I interpret humanism, it has no problem with wealth per se, or with significant disparities in income and wealth. Humanism does commit one to support democracy and equal rights for all, however. Failure to curb the influence of money on our political process could turn us into an oligarchy in all but name and devalue the rights of the majority.

As always, unless noted otherwise, the views expressed in my blog posts are my personal opinions and do not necessarily reflect the official position of CFI.