Even among religious persons, the temptation is strong to measure life success in material terms. For the nonreligious, it often appears as the only yardstick, substituting for less-quantifiable standards such as happiness or achievement. How much money do I make? How many people stand at attention when I walk into the office? How large is my house — how fancy my car? Success or failure in life will seem to depend on the answers given to these questions.
That such naive materialism is objectively false I consider to be beyond dispute. That some version of it preys on the minds of many who live in the rich nations of the West is, I think, a likelihood. I also suspect that we Americans are particularly susceptible, for two reasons. First, our economy has been booming for so long that, as Sophistpundit observes, even the gloom-mongers in the media have taken notice. Second, unlike most countries, we lack the rigid rankings of class, caste, or tribe, to set beside the products of material prosperity.
Even most Americans under the poverty line are, by historical standards, wealthy. It’s not surprising, then, that we sometimes give the impression of being what we consume.
The materialist temptation arises in diametrically opposed contexts: that of failure and that of success. Subjectively, one can be unhappy with one’s material situation at any point between destitution and great wealth. It’s a feeling, not a fact. TV and the movies constantly place before us impossibly grandiose “lifestyles,” unattainable in the real world; and, unless one is Bill Gates, in reality there will always be people wealthier than one, whose existence can be looked on as a reproach.
Yet only in the most extreme examples can we say that lack of wealth equals human failure. If a father or a mother spend their money on drink or drugs while their children go hungry, that’s a moral disaster — a failed life. If the same father or mother helps feed, shelter, and clothe the children, but can’t afford to buy them Gameboys or take them to Disney World, not one iota of failure attaches to their lives, whose worth will be judged by a different set of standards — moral rather than material.
The sense of failure breeds frustration, bitterness, and envy, emotions that demean those who experience them. The desperate desire to become rich often leads to foolish decisions — accepting work one hates, giving money to frauds who promise the world, and quite frequently a rootless nomadism, as seekers after El Dorado wander from one promised land to another.
Still, the greater moral peril lies with success. That is true of individuals and, given our unprecedented bounty, of the American people as a whole. The worship of wealth becomes destructive of democracy, as money and things are pursued at the expense of freedom and good character.
Jefferson, with all the Founding Fathers, was keenly aware of this. He worried about a community in which “wolves” fattened on human sheep. Jefferson’s most famous phrase, the pursuit of happiness, meant to him the perfection of virtue, not the accumulation of wealth and goods. It was for this reason that he saw the country’s future in its small farmers, and it was for this reason that he hated Hamilton’s plan to fund a national bank.
Material success can inspire selfishness, heartlessness, and insatiable greed, and it can lead to the dehumanizing of those who are less successful. (I once knew a housewife from Latin America who bought a brand of toilet paper cheaper than her own for her maid.) It can also create a corrupt dependency on luxuries, making things master over men:
The horseman serves the horse,
The neat-herd serves the neat,
The merchant serves the purse,
The eater serves his meat;
‘Tis the day of the chattel,
Web to weave, and corn to grind,
Things are in the saddle,
And ride mankind.
What, then, is the proper attitude to money and consumer goods? To begin with, let’s remember that no one ever gets rich because they want happiness. People get rich because they have a talent for making money. They are happy when they have a talent for happiness, which can be had with or without great sums of money. Beyond a minimum material sustenance, the measure of a successful life is equally agnostic about wealth.
I believe money can be a door to opportunity. I believe we can have fun with our possessions — Emerson’s “things in the saddle” — without being ridden by them. The problem isn’t one of quantity but of morality. The question, therefore, isn’t how many dollars add up to corruption, but what defines one’s subjective relationship to wealth and property.
Boiled down to basics, morality has two components: self-rule and community values. Let these guide a person’s relationship to material prosperity, and wealth can be enjoyed in the proper measure.
That’s easy to prescribe, exceedingly hard to achieve. The tempation is always present to consider the material world an end rather than a means, the value of which justifies cheating and bullying to win. It takes a lifetime of moral education — day by day, test after test — to overcome this temptation.