Filthy Lucre

For hundreds of years in the West it was deemed vulgar to be involved in the making of more money than was required to live on, including lending at interest or simply hoarding. The notion that one would spend his or her time simply accumulating money and wealth was regarded, not only by the Christian Church but also by those “in the know” as beneath contempt. In Dante’s Inferno, for example, the usurers are placed beneath the murderers because they commit a sin against God, whereas murderers only commit a sin against man. Those who lend money at interest seek to make money appear where there was none before, creating money without laboring in any way, creating money ex nihilo. Only God can do this, it was thought. When man seeks to copy God he has stepped beyond a moral barrier that condemns him to eternal perdition. In Dante’s poem the usurers sit at the edge of a burning pit with heavy bags of gold around their necks, waiting for the gold to increase, presumably.

There can be no doubt that the deep prejudices that folks like Adolph Hitler drew upon against the Jews in Europe was based, in part at least, on the fact that the Jews saw nothing wrong with usury or the making of money while those who did not espouse that particular religious view were told in no uncertain terms that it was contemptible and trifling and even vulgar. There was one Jew, of course, who founded a new religion based on the notion that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. But he was an exception and has been widely ignored, especially of late. In any event, the accumulation of wealth as an end in itself was regarded as de-humanizing and even immoral.

How did this view change? How did we get from looking down at money-gatherers to regarding them as the most successful people on earth and worthy not only of our respect but even, in some cases, of our adoration? Bill Gates and Warren Buffet are held in high esteem in our culture. We even have elected a president whose only possible claim to that office is that he was a successful (?) businessman. They are examples of the fact that anyone can “make it” in America. The Horatio Alger myth lives on, though it gets a bit weaker when we discover that many were born with a silver spoon in their tiny mouths and we also discover that Balzac was right: where there’s a fortune there must have been a crime.

In any event, the attitude toward “filthy lucre” has changed radically and it is down to people like John Locke, Adam Smith, and John Calvin. The changes in attitude came in two stages. Firstly, the notion that the acquisition of great wealth, once regarded as a sign of grubby self-seeking greed, had been replaced by the eighteenth century, when capitalism was aborning, by the notion that the accumulation of great wealth was an example of virtuous behavior  — a point of view we find expressed again and again in Adam Smith who wrote that “probity and punctuality are virtues that invariably accompany the introduction of commercial relations into society.” And, secondly, it was said that commerce benefits not only the one who engages directly in the activity, but it benefits everyone else around him as well. It has a “trickle down” effect, if you will. Smith worried that capitalism displaced centuries-old morality, but he felt that, in the end, it was worth the trade-off.

But even before Smith we read that John Locke worried about the possibility that in a state of nature a man could accrue to himself more of nature’s bounty than he could possibly need and in the process leave little or nothing for his fellow humans. This was not a good thing. But once gold and silver were taken to be true wealth and John Calvin insisted that the gaining of wealth was a sign of God’s grace and favor, this no longer was a problem; now one could accumulate as much as he wanted whether he could ever spend it in his lifetime or not. It would never spoil and, presumably, there was plenty left for others to accrue as well. So was born the “Protestant work ethic.”

Thus, in our day, we have heroes who would have been pilloried in earlier times. We now regard the making and hoarding of money as not only acceptable but also as a sign of intelligence, imagination, and hard work, worthy of admiration, a measure of success. In the process the accumulation of capital, has become at the very least an a-moral activity, even though folks like Karl Marx continued to regarded it as immoral — because it necessarily involves the taking it way from others who need it more, who earned it, and therefore deserve to have it. This happens under capitalism in the form of the creation of “surplus value” which we have come to dismiss as, simply, “the earnings of capital.” The wealthy see their immense profits as something they have earned and therefore deserve, whereas others (like Marx) might view it as coming at the cost of unethical acts that involve the exploitation of those who actually do the work necessary to produce the wealth in the first place.

But no matter which way we look at it, the making and hoarding or money, no matter how great the hoard, is now viewed in our culture as a good thing. It is no longer “contemptible and trifling,” unworthy of human beings who have been touched by the hand of God. It is no longer “vulgar.” At the very least it is clear that the making of filthy lucre has become “demoralized.” Ethics and economics simply do not mix in our current commodified culture. No longer do the usurers have to worry about  being placed in a burning pit with heavy bags of gold around their necks through eternity. Now they build high-priced, low-quality mini-mansions, swim in their own swimming pools, and drive large, powerful gas-guzzling cars to Church every Sunday for an hour.  And the rest of us admire them and want to be just like them.

Locke On Property

One of the more fascinating chapters in John Locke’s Second Treatise on Civil Government explains his position on property. He ties his view in with his doctrine of natural human rights which informed the thinking of our founders as well. In fact, Thomas Jefferson had a portrait of Locke on his walls (one of two I am given to understand) and his “Declaration of Independence” is thoroughly Lockian, as is his Virginia Constitution. In any event, Locke thought that property was a natural right, along with life and liberty. Note that Jefferson borrowed Locke’s phrase which was later changed to “Life, Liberty, and Pursuit of Happiness.”

Property is a natural right because in a state of nature, before there are any civil laws to protect it, we have a right to as much property as we can take and use. Note that “use” is a key here. Locke  places a boundary on this type of acquisition–a person may only acquire as many things in this way as he or she can reasonably use to his advantage, making sure to leave some for the next person. If, for example, I chance upon apple trees in the state of nature I have a right to as many apples as I can reasonably consume before the next harvest. I ought not take more than I can eat or so many that others who might have a right to them as well cannot find enough to eat. That is, I should only take as many apples as I can eat before they go bad; if I take too many apples and some of them rot and go to waste, I have overextended my natural rights of acquisition. Others might have been able to eat those apples. One ought only take so much as one can use. Locke applies these rules to land: a person in a state of nature can claim land by adding labor to it–building house on it or farming on it–but only so much as that person can reasonably use without waste.


The invention of money clouds the picture somewhat, but the principle remains the same. The value of money is merely symbolic: it stands for the labor extended in creating products. I have a right to collect more money than I actually need because money does not spoil. But, at the same time, I have no right to more than I could possibly need in my lifetime, especially if it means that others will have less than they need to live on. It’s a “zero-sum” game here — even in the case of money. There’s only so much to go around.

Even John Calvin writing a century before Locke and usually credited with formulating the Protestant Work Ethic, urges restraint — and bear in mind that this is the man who regarded great wealth as a sign of God’s favor:

“. . .many today look for an excuse for excessive self-indulgence in the use of material things. They take for granted that their liberty must not be restrained in any way, but that it should be left to every man’s conscience to do whatever he think is right.  . . but because Scripture has laid down general rules for the use of material possessions, we should keep within the limits laid down. . . . Many are so obsessed with marble, gold and pictures that they become marble-hearted, are changed into hard metal or become like painted figures.”

If we now alter our focus somewhat and think about our own society in which 1% of the people control the vast majority of wealth in the country and the numbers of poor and needy grow daily, thousands of whom have no place to sleep or sufficient food to eat, we can see where Locke might have some serious problems. He was convinced, as was Adam Smith (the father of free-market capitalist theory), that humans would be guided by a moral sensitivity to the needs of others and their natural tendencies towards acquisition would be tempered by that sensitivity, as was urged by such men as John Calvin. In other words, the concept of the “free market” was couched within an ethical framework which stressed human sympathy for those less fortunate than ourselves: people would care about one another out of a sense of shared humanity, as “laid down by Scripture.” The notion that some would accumulate billions of dollars while others around them starve was unheard of, not even considered. It clearly violates the fundamental Lockian principle about the natural right we all have to property. To quote Benjamin Disraeli,

“Riches, position, and power have only one duty — to secure the social welfare of the People.”

In sum, our present situation violates the fundamental moral principle — and Locke’s notion of natural rights was a moral precept, not an economic one — that we have a right only to that which we can reasonably use in our lifetime while making sure there is enough for others who might be in need. On its face it is abhorrent that so few control so much of the wealth in this country and so many of them seem to have no sense of shared humanity with others in need — though there are notable exceptions, such as Bill Gates and a handful of wealthy athletes who make an effort to help those on this earth who go hungry to bed (if they have one) each night. I would argue that those with great wealth have a moral obligation to help others who have less than they do. At the very least, they have no right to more than they require to live a healthy and happy life.

Doing Some Good

I have been giving the infamous 1% in this country a hard time in my blogs. To be sure, for the most part they deserve it as they continue to amass wealth while the world around them and many of the people in it struggle. But there is at least one billionaire, Louis Bacon, who is capable of doing good while doing well. He has recently donated 90,000 acres of his ranch in Colorado to conservation. A recent story from USA News on MSNBC reports:

A billionaire hedge-fund manager on Friday pledged to protect 90,000 acres of his Colorado ranch from further development as part of a much larger planned conservation area. The Obama administration said it would be the “largest single conservation easement” ever provided to the federal government.

The easement will allow ranching and hunting, but no development. It is part of Bacon’s 172,000 acre ranch and is reported to be one of the most beautiful spots in the country and alive with wildlife. It is a most generous gift though the cynic in me keeps nagging: why on earth would a man want a 172,000 acre ranch in the first place? But I told that part of me to shut up and just enjoy the moment: not all of the obscenely wealthy people in this country are blindly piling up ever more wealth at any cost. After all, Ted Turner, who does a great deal of good with his money, has a ranch near Bacon’s that is 600,000 acres. And if he can justify owning all that land, surely Bacon can find a way to justify his ownership of a ranch only about a quarter as large — or if not “justify” it, at least rationalize it, which is not the same thing at all.

Bear in mind that Bacon’s generosity, while it is admirable, does not put food on the table of hungry and destitute families; it does not put clothes on the backs of poor children, or roofs over the heads of the homeless; it does not undo the damage done by unscrupulous bankers (as described in this excellent blog: But it will protect some of our vanishing wilderness from the ravages of developers and oil exploration, at least for a time. And this is a good thing. One wishes there were more of the wealthy who chose to do even this much good.

Indeed, if the wealthy in this country weren’t intent on getting more tax breaks (yes, Bacon will get those from his gift) and watching their “disposable” income grow beyond one’s wildest imaginings, and if they were determined to not only preserve wild places and protect animal and fish life, but also help their fellow humans who are in need, it would be fairly easy to make a case that these people are entitled in some way to their wealth because of the immense good they are determined to do with it. But that isn’t happening.

Bear in mind that 1% of the population of this country amounts to slightly over three million people each of whom is worth countless millions of dollars. Think of the immense good they could do if they chose to do so. That is, if more of the privileged 1% acted with a social conscience, they (and their not-quite-so-rich friends) wouldn’t have to rail against an over-sized government grown large out of their indifference to the plight of the planet and its inhabitants. But few of them seem to have a conscience at all: the number of folks like Ted Turner, Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and Louis Bacon in the group of the 1% is very small. Unfortunately.

The “Deserving” 1%

The topic of the 1% who control 40% of this country’s wealth has been worn to death. But that doesn’t mean people will stop talking about it, or that they should. A good friend of mine was recounting a story he heard about the “amazing 1%” who are getting bad press when, in fact, they deserve their immense wealth because of their creativity, initiative,  and intelligence. He couldn’t recall his source, so I can’t tell you where he heard this. But no matter. I want to deal with the broad issue and it really doesn’t matter where the story comes from.

To begin with, it is a bit a bit outrageous to say that all of those who comprise the top 1% of the wealthy in this country are deserving of their wealth because of their creativity and ingenuity. Clearly, that is a half-truth, at best. Some, perhaps many, of those people deserve to be wealthy, because their ability should be rewarded. Whether this means their abilities deserve the hundreds of millions of dollars it translates into is another question when there are thousands of people in this country who cannot put food on the table. The “poverty level” is defined in terms of an income of $22,350.00/year  for a family of four — and more than 15% of this country is at or below that level. That’s nearly forty-seven million people! Further, it is estimated that there are 750,000 homeless in this country. Clearly there is a moral issue here: it’s a zero-sum game. The chances of those at the bottom of the financial pile ever getting on their feet, much less to the top, are slim to none.

The suggestion of the claim that the top 1% deserve their wealth is that the bottom 99% deserve to be deprived. This is nonsense, of course. There are a great many, thousands I dare to say, who deserve to be wealthy but who never will be because they have been denied the opportunity. Does one think for a moment that those in the top 1% didn’t have an advantage? I recall one of my former students who “made it” in the business world after two out-and-out failures. Each time he failed his millionaire father bailed him out and helped him start again. And yet in the years after his success he insisted that those in need deserved to be there– otherwise they would have worked their way up as he had. I’m not sure what you say to a person who makes such an outrageous claim. We eventually stopped talking.

For every member of the top 1% like Bill Gates who made it “big time” on the basis of his genius and determination, there are thousands of others who are there by virtue of birth, opportunity, luck, parental assistance and/or (dare I say it?) lies and deception. Recall Mitt Romney’s advice to recent college graduates that they should borrow $20,000.00 from their parents and start their own business. The man lives in a different world from the rest of us. How many people could do that? Only those who already have a leg-up.

The half-truth that those who have great wealth deserve it translates into the certainty that there are some wealthy people who deserve to be rewarded for their abilities. That the  huge reward is well deserved in the case of the 1% is highly doubtful in face of the obvious fact that there are so many who must do without and the related fact that so many of those who have great wealth did little if anything to deserve it.

But in the end, the problem is not reducible to moral quibbling. The huge disparity in wealth between the very rich and the very poor in this country coupled with the widening gap between the “haves” and the “have-nots” have serious implications with respect to the very survival of this society — as I have mentioned in previous blogs. The moral issue can be ignored, as so many are able to do in this society. But the question of our survival as “the land of opportunity,” where generations of immigrants have realized their dreams, where Horatio Algers were found on every hand, is yet to be answered.