Contentment is the Wealth of Nature

Wealth is a problem. I guess we have all been conditioned to believe that wealth is the answer to problems of deprivation and need. It stands to reason that if the essentials for life cost more than we have to pay, then wealth provides for those needs. QED.

 But I still contend that wealth is a problem. Perhaps it is THE problem aggravating all of our attempts to build a stable society. Generating wealth is championed as a moral good, at times, as THE moral good. If our politicians and business journalists are to be believed, wealth, and its capacity to efficiently diagnose institutional health, is really the chief metric for determining how we are doing as a society.

Wealth is anything that has a monetary or exchange value. Essentially, anything that is able to be acquired or exchanged is classified as wealth. Of course, these commodities vary in relative value based on the function of supply and demand, but the sum-total of all transferrable material goods constitutes “wealth.”

We all consume or utilize certain material goods as a matter of necessity. Items such as food, clothing, shelter, and fuel are de rigueur of human civilization. History demonstrates that human societies stratify according the kind and amount of material wealth controlled and exchanged by certain people. This is not, in itself, problematic. Although fraught with their own shortcomings, feudal societies demonstrated how the feudal gentry could retain and control vast amounts of wealth and still assure that the common serfs had enough to provide for themselves and the greater community. And as long as the feudal lord provided safety, the peasants ensured the noble’s larders were full and their castles maintained in good order. Don’t worry, I’m not making a case for a return to feudalism.

Wealth is a problem today because those who have the power to acquire and dispose of wealth have set to work acquiring more than they need. I know what you’re saying, who am I to determine what too much wealth is? My response to you is simple, anyone who acquires wealth at the expense of those who cannot meet their basic needs has too much wealth

I can’t attach a dollar amount because wealth is not a matter of having a bunch of cash on hand. Wealth is power and power buys influence. Influence allows the conspicuously wealthy to protect their material wealth as well as their power and influence. But as Justice Stewart said of obscenity, “I know it when I see it.” And as DHS likes to remind us as we work our way through airport security, “If you see something, say something.”

Wealth is a problem because we haven’t demonstrated the capacity to manage the wealth we have. What makes us think that more wealth is going to fix the problem? I heard someone making a case that economic stimulus and austerity affect the economy the same way vaccines and prophylaxis work on diseases. I could buy it if our means of wealth creation and distribution were organic processes. But we have created a synthesized system that is utterly manufactured and we expect it to behave like a biological organism. This is foolishness. Adam Smith’s wet-dream won’t organically heal a sick economy. An economy like ours has to be regulated like a machine. I’m cool with some people having more wealth than others. But when that wealth is being alternately hoarded and squandered at the expense of some who can’t even secure their basic needs, something has to change

The Old Testament describes an economy vastly different from our own. The economy of the Ancient Near East was an economy of finite goods. What this means is that the Israelites organized their economic system around the idea that there are sufficient natural resources to ensure everyone will have enough to live on. Inherent in this model is the principle that having more than you need is theft from someone who doesn’t have enough. This was so essential to the social order that the Torah required that all debts be forgiven and property held in tribute (collateral) be returned to its owners every 50 years. Everyone experienced jubilee at least once in their lifetime and it ensured that the mistakes of one generation would not carry over to the next

In stark contrast, we have created an economy of infinite goods that says there are always more resources to be exploited and commoditized. We see no end to the growth of wealth. We so abjectly believe in this principle of infinite goods that we experience virtually no compunction about destroying other economies and communities throughout the world for the chance to build more wealt

Socrates is quoted as saying, “He is richest who is content with the least, for content is the wealth of nature.” The title above is a play on this theme. Socrates, Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed, and Yoda all instruct their students in simplicity. They don’t teach it because it is easy. They teach it because it is necessary. Wealth is the problem. Humility and simplicity are the answer.

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