On August 8th, writer Adam Roberts penned an article of sorts (mainly graphic illustrations) regarding the guilt he bares for being a one-percenter. He bemoans his inner turmoil about hoarding too much wealth and that much of it came from investments in companies he finds morally unacceptable. He puts his spending through a screening of moral benefits. He believes there is no moral way to operate under a capitalist system that he believes serves only a wealthy few.
I don’t want to berate a single individual for his beliefs. If Roberts believes he needs to distribute more of his wealth and his conscience is weighing on him to do so, then by all means, he should do so. However, his wealth guilt has no place in being forced onto anyone else. One person has no right to define the morals nor help themselves to the property of others.
The thoughts shared by Roberts are pervasive amongst the left. It’s an odd mentality that economies are a zero sum game and that no one can grow wealthy without accumulating that wealth at the expense of others. It is assumed that if I spend a dollar with you that you gained my dollar and I received nothing in return. I would not give you my dollar unless what I was getting in return was more valuable than my dollar. Therefore, we have both gained wealth in the transaction.
The wealthiest among us got that way by being very efficient at distributing wealth. The assumptions made by Roberts in this article, for lack of a better term, exhibit what I believe is a misunderstanding of the nature of wealth. Wealth is not just money. Money is a significant part of it, but wealth is also an abundance of services, conveniences, and possessions. The only way a transaction in a capitalist (or mostly capitalist) system is when both parties are gaining something more. Otherwise, there’s no motivation to complete the transaction. A person giving money must be getting something they value more than the money, and a person receiving money must be selling something they value less than the money. So, it’s impossible that both sides have not increased wealth through every transaction. Meaning that those who have accumulated the most have completed the most transactions or the largest transactions, thus distributing greater wealth.
As for making capital gains and earning money from investments in companies who operate in a manner with which one disagrees, I don’t believe investments are actually supporting the businesses themselves. Stock trades as an asset unto itself, really in many ways separate from the business. Buying stock is not the same as influencing the direction of a business. The business is going to generate profits whether you own the stock or not. Benefiting from those profits happens as a byproduct of owning an asset, not from making decisions to do something with which you disagree. The asset produces income as an investment. Want to stop the behavior of a business? Then be one of many investors who think like you do and elect a different board of directors that supports what you want.
Once again, it isn’t so much that I take issue with Roberts on his wanting to reduce his own personal wealth, but rather it’s that I take issue with the assumption that the 1% are somehow prospering only at the expense of everyone else. It doesn’t bother me that he seeks to only own stock in businesses that agree with his policy goals. I take issue with the idea that we must forcibly take wealth for redistribution and that wealth can only be gained in a manner which one person deems to be moral. While this was not directly mentioned, it was definitely implied.
The wealthy have no reason to feel guilty about their wealth. It is a very good thing, I believe, when those who can donate to charity and use the money to help others do so willingly. However, it rings hollow if these actions are forced. There’s no honor in the forced taking of the property of others. It only serves the greater good when money is used for aid via voluntary means.
Capitalism and the wealthy having more money than others is not the problem. The wealthy are not making other people poorer. The wealthy are bringing more people out of poverty by having more transactions with them. Every transaction leads to greater wealth in the economy. Wealth is not a zero sum game. When the wealthy get wealthier, the poor are getting wealthier too through every transaction. Under capitalism, it’s impossible for wealth not to grow, whether rich or poor. The poor don’t get better off by taking their money from the rich, but rather by freeing the system from interference so as to offer greater opportunities for more transactions that benefit all.