Prosperity and perdition

Wealth generates a moral uneasiness, sometimes verging on self-loathing.  Prosperous people feel underserving if not downright tainted, and tend to fear the future, when matters will be put to rights by a great turning of the wheel of justice.  That is the case even when the money is honestly earned, as is the case almost invariably today.

I’ve read about self-righteous bloats in nineteenth-century novels, but I have never encountered one in life.  In my limited experience, when the rich consider their wealth, they worry rather than brag.

Both Christian morality, which doubts rich men can enter heaven, and classical morality, which promotes control of the appetites over material success, lend their support to the worriers.  The moral reflex of many Americans when confronted with great wealth is to shout out the words of the preacher in Ecclesiastes:  Vanity of vanities, all the world is vanity!

So what happens when a moral community that finds wealth morally tainted becomes affluent beyond anything dreamed of in history?

For all their political violence, the last 100 years have seen an unprecedented improvement in the material condition of the human race.  Global GDP in 2001 may have grown 18 times over what it was in 1900.  During the same period, the cost of agricultural commodities — food — declined by 70 percent, and the cost of nonagricultural commodities — industrial products — declined by 80 percent.

Nor was the gain entirely a question of greater wealth and cheaper goods.  Average life expectancy doubled.  In the developed countries, infant morality has dropped 85 percent, just in the last half-century; it has dropped, at various rates, all over the world.

As Nicolas Eberstadt observes in a fascinating piece in the Wilson Quarterly, what we call the “population explosion” of the twentieth century was in fact a “health explosion.”  It wasn’t that more people were born, but that fewer died.  In addition to having 18 times the wealth and vastly more inexpensive goods to choose from, we are better fed, and lead healthier, longer, more active lives.

Rather than gratitude, this inspires the moral contempt of many articulate persons, and fevered premonitions of self-induced catastrophe in others.

The WaPo’s Robert J. Samuelson discussed John Kenneth Galbraith’s The Affluent Society on the occasion of Galbraith’s death a few days back.  Galbraith, an unrepentant socialist, contemplated with something like horror the American conquest of poverty, scarcity, and disease, which he equated with a mindless and soulless materialism.  Literally mindless:  he believed that advertisers controlled the behavior of the American consumer, as a puppeteer might control his puppets.

To Galbraith, materialism had gone mad and would breed discontent. Through advertising, companies conditioned consumers to buy things they didn’t really want or need. Because so much spending was artificial, it would be unfulfilling. Meanwhile, government spending that would make everyone better off was being shortchanged because people instinctively — and wrongly — stigmatized government only as “a necessary evil.”

“Automobiles have an importance greater than the roads on which they are driven,” he wrote scornfully. “Alcohol, comic books and mouthwash all bask under the superior reputation of the [private] market. Schools, judges and municipal swimming pools lie under the evil reputation of bad kings [government].” The book argued for more government spending and less private spending.

“By and large,” writes Samuelson, “these ideas have not aged well.”

Eberstadt’s article concentrates on another variation of the rich man’s burden:  the prophecies of doomsday, which will be triggered by our untrammeled appetites.  In 1968, Paul Ehrlich — wrong more often than any other human being who ever made a good living predicting the future — wrote The Population Bomb, in which he envisioned mass starvation by the 1970’s and 1980’s.  The Limits to Growth, compiled by the Club of Rome, in 1972 produced a “computer-model apocalypse of overpopulation.”  Eberstadt continues:

The demographic doom-saying in authoritative and influential circles has steadily continued: from the Carter administration’s grim Global 2000 study in 1980 to the 1992 vision of eco-disaster in Al Gore’s Earth in the Balance to practically any recent publication or pronouncement by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).

What is perhaps most remarkable about the incessant stream of dire — and consistently wrong — predictions of global demographic overshoot is the public’s apparently insatiable demand for it. Unlike the villagers in the fable about the boy who cried wolf, educated American consumers always seem to have the time, the money, and the credulity to pay to hear one more time that we are just about to run out of everything, thanks to population growth. The Population Bomb and the Club of Rome�s disaster tale both sold millions of copies. More recently, journalist Robert D. Kaplan created a stir by trumpeting “the coming anarchy” in a 2000 book of the same name, warning that a combination of demographic and environmental crises was creating world-threatening political maelstroms in a variety of developing countries. Why, of all people, do American — who fancy themselves the world’s pragmatic problems-solvers — seem to betray a predilection for such obviously dramatic and unproved visions of the future?

In answering his own question, Eberstadt points to the “quantophrenia” that afflicts American thinking:  that is, the belief that a vast array of numbers and statistics must contain truth.

Maybe so.  But when one considers the self-flagellation and calls for repentance surrounding “climate change” — not just “global warming” any more, as Mark Steyn observes:  any change in the weather will get us to doomsday — or about species extinction, or about obesity epidemics, one has to wonder whether the manipulation of numbers is incidental to a profound sense of guilt and loss.

What, in truth, is the proper moral attitude toward great affluence?  The question was first asked by the sin-obsessed patron merchants of the Renaissance, and the answer they settled on went something like this.  Wealth is merely a capability, not a moral condition.  Great wealth, rightly used, multiplies the capability of doing good.

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