On Admiring the Rich

You may appreciate a man’s talent for making money, but you must never admire him for it. For this would mean regarding wealth, or the getting of wealth, as the gifted wealth-getter himself does, namely as a mark of personal greatness. On the contrary, one could do worse than to adopt the following as a general rule: No extraordinarily rich man — especially if he earned his wealth by his own efforts — should ever be trusted.

For the very fact of his having elevated himself to such otherworldly levels of wealth is almost certain proof that he is in no way a great man. He may barely even be a man. He is, or rather has turned himself into, an acquisition machine — useful to society, perhaps, but no more admirable than any number of other socially useful things. Terrible strife, crushing hardship, painful failure, slavish stupidity — all of these have provided great benefits to mankind and to the development of civilization, though no one would mistake any of them as objects to be admired. For example, every reasonable person knows that without hardship there can be no growth, and without sheep-like men we would lack the unthinking labor that general productivity requires. And yet no sensible or decent person would wish to build his political community in the image of failure or slavishness. The same principle, then, applies to the greatest talent for wealth-getting, which in its excessive manifestations is merely slavishness with gold toilets.

By the same token, however, it is equally absurd to hate or resent “the billionaires” for their financial success as such. These “titans of business” or “leading capitalists” may certainly be criticized for the behavior in which they engage, and the rationalizations which they invent, in the name of their wealth-getting efforts; but our criticisms must be approached in much the same manner that we might criticize a raging alcoholic for neglecting his family responsibilities or for his poor judgment in friends — with an admixture of pity, and a sober “There but for the grace of God go I.” The “titan’s” truly destructive or despicable actions — such as his forays into illegitimate political influence, his pragmatic accommodation of tyrants, his social engineering projects designed to enhance his wealth and entrench his overlord status — are essentially byproducts of his fatal weakness of soul, of the spiritual poverty of the irrationally obsessed man.

Further, to reiterate a point noted above, and explained ad nauseum by Adam Smith, it must never be forgotten that unlike alcoholism or other such irrational obsessions, the genius for wealth-getting can, if restrained within a political framework protecting individual rights — that is, a framework in which trade and mutual respect are favored over plunder and fraud — provide substantial practical benefits to society at large. These benefits, to be sure, arise not because there is anything wise, beautiful, or virtuous about the accumulation of wealth per se, but rather because without a few men spiritually limited enough to devote their lives to material gain, society at large would lack the economic prosperity and material opportunity needed to ease life’s practical burdens for those citizens capable of the nobler and more virtuous pursuits that are truly definitive of a healthy political community. Nevertheless, these material benefits are real — at least from the minority of cases of great wealth-getters, though certainly not all. The proportion of social benefit to harm from these weak, materially-obsessed men may be directly related to the degree to which the society has kept them in their proper place, i.e., as accidental benefactors (productive profiteers) and not as men of political power and self-serving influence (oligarchs).

In other words, a healthy society — understanding societal health not as an “idealist” but as a “conservative” understands it — would leave these men free to do as they please within the moral and legal limits outlined above, but without ever losing the clear understanding that these are not great men. Rather, they are men who excel at useful but low tasks because they lack the nature to live for higher things. Seen in this proper light, it becomes clear that “the super-rich” are worthy of neither admiration nor envy. Nor are they to be hated or demonized — as long as they live within the confines of a rights-based political community, and never seek to overstep the bounds of their legitimate arena of success. The problem, of course, is that so many of them inevitably do overstep those bounds, with politically disastrous effects, because they inherently lack the virtue to stop themselves, and because the realm of political power is made up primarily of men who are themselves nothing but amoral peddlers whose merchandise for sale is political influence itself — a marriage made in Hell.

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