I recently watched a report on TV about a scion of a famous and wealthy Hollywood family who has just been sentenced to five years in prison for dealing drugs.
These weren’t teenage hijinks. The man in question is in his thirties. The family had cut him off because of his disreputable life, and he decided to make up the difference by selling methamphetamine and cocaine.
He was born to privilege, fame, and an enormous fortune. He could have had anything – probably, anyone – he wanted, yet he ended up a moral wreck and a vampire, feeding off other people’s addictions, rejected even by his own family.
It seems strange, but we know it to be a familiar story. The tabloids and the seedier websites are littered with the names of rock and rollers, movie stars, and famous athletes who overdose or end in prison. Often the mega-rich disintegrate, and the public enjoys the spectacle. OJ Simpson and Michael Jackson are only the most bizarre examples.
I have heard people say, when conversation turns to the rich and famous, that they wished they could trade places and enjoy the luxurious life. Yet the rich and famous sometimes seek to escape their own much-envied lives, even when the alternative is transforming into a petty thug doing five years’ time in a cage.
There is no paradox here. Envy of the very rich is born of ignorance. In their place, we believe we would be ourselves, only without the daily struggle for money, pleasure, and recognition. We would remain who we are, only less frustrated, more satisfied: happier.
In fact the moral structure sustaining the integrity of most individuals is protected by a wall of necessity. Normal husbands and wives aren’t tempted by youthful and beautiful objects of desire who would gladly trade their bodies for a slice of the family fortune. Normal children aren’t subverted by being rich before being schooled. Normal friends aren’t bloodsuckers. Hard work among the middle class is a virtue, not an eccentricity.
With great wealth, the wall of necessity is breached. We are on our own with our basest desires. Most of us would become very different people under such circumstances: not necessarily happier, not necessarily better.
I’m thankful I’m not poor. Real poverty means physical want, but also the ever-present pull of moral disaster: I don’t mean the theft of a loaf of bread like Jean Valjean, but joining a drug cartel in Mexico or an “army” of mass killers in the Congo.
Yet the relationship between wealth and happiness is uncertain. My guess is that a little wealth goes a long way, while a lot can be dangerous and corrosive to good character. If someone were to offer me $5 million tomorrow, I’d jump for joy. That would place me beyond the reach of ruin.
If someone were to offer me Bill Gates money, however, I’d be terrified. That would propel me beyond financial security into a different kind of insecurity. Nothing would require work, effort, challenge, focus, a good fight. Every desire would be satisfied before I conceived it. Every encounter would be warped by uncertainty: if I were a billionaire, it would be naïve to expect anyone to see in me more than a pile of money.
True, I could do many good deeds, become a philathropist in the style of Bill Gates – but this would be effortless. I’d sign a check, that would be it. I’d pose for pictures surrounded by doting recipients of my largesse.
Consider that the distance between effortless and meaningless is vanishingly small.
It’s also true that there are those – like Carnegie, the Rockefellers, and Gates himself – who manage huge fortunes while avoiding moral implosion. This requires an unusual mix of strong character and weak imagination. Such people are admirable but rare.
In an ocean of money, I suspect most of us would sink and drown.
The ancient Greeks recommended the middle way: neither too much nor too little. They were worried about excessive pride and ambition, but the rule applies just as well to excessive wealth, and for the same reasons. The middle way stays anchored in necessity, thus preventing hubris – the self-destructive illusion that one is a god.
The fantasy that, through a stroke of power or fortune, all our desires will be satisfied, is universal and understandable. Robert Johnson expressed this hope in the plaintive first line of his song:
If I had possession over Judgment Day…
But the fantasy is a child of human weakness. In truth, if we had possession, most of us would be overthrown. If we had the wealth to become god-like, most of us would land closer to Caligula – or at least to the convicted Hollywood pusher – than to Jim Carey.
This, I hasten to add, says nothing about the intrinsic good or evil of the human race, and everything about the conditions under which morality evolved. We can resist hardship, suffering, loss – almost anything except temptation.