Everyone's talking about income inequality, but we don't have a clue what wealth creation is really all about.
“I maintain, therefore, that the common sociological method is quite useless: that of first dissecting abject poverty or cataloguing prostitution. We all dislike abject poverty; but it might be another business if we began to discuss independent and dignified poverty. We all disapprove of prostitution; but we do not all approve of purity. The only way to discuss the social evil is to get at once to the social ideal.”
What’s Wrong with the World (1910)
One hundred years on, Chesterton is still right.
First, we all still dislike abject poverty. Second, we still fail constructively to address this social evil because we do not have a shared, coherent view of the “social ideal.”
Take, for example, our situation here in the U.S. Whether or not to divert attention from the problems that persist with the Obamacare rollout, President Obama has recently been refocusing his agenda with even greater strength on “income inequality,” in a recent remark going so far as to call it “the defining challenge of our time.” The 50th anniversary this month of Lyndon Johnson’s declaration of a “war on poverty,” and the host of federal welfare programs that issued from it, has also focused attention on income inequality and its companion problem, social mobility. And last week’s inauguration of New York mayor Bill de Blasio also put the spotlight once again on the ever-recurring progressivist dream to help the poor through government engineering.
There is a debate to be had whether income inequality is as pressing an issue as President Obama says it is (for one slice of that debate, see here and here). And there’s another debate to be had whether social mobility is really linked to income inequality. A recent study indicates that social mobility in the U.S. is not linked to income inequality.
But no matter how these economic debates are settled, poverty will always exist and political communities at all levels will need to find ways to assist those in need. Chesterton is right that this effort requires a clear understanding of the “social ideal” pertaining to wealth. The problem with our economic debates is that we spend a lot of time and energy on proposed (and often dubious) solutions like raising the minimum wage, and almost none on talking about the relationship between wealth and other aspects of a flourishing human life.
We all know that money can’t buy love. Wealth is, of course, a necessary good of human life, but it nonetheless remains instrumental to other, more important goods. The most important of our goods are “common goods,” goods that can only come to be and be enjoyed within a community of persons. The family, with its goods of child-rearing, play, the pursuit of truth, and worship, is among the most precious of these communities.
To borrow a distinction from Catholic philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, money is a good that is “external” to the practices of communities of the common good like the family. Money is “external” because it’s perfectly possible to get one’s hands on it without participating in community at all. A devoted father can make a fortune through honorable work, but then again, so can Jordan Belfort, Leonardo Dicaprio’s unscrupulous character in The Wolf of Wall Street.
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But let’s make no provisions for scoundrels and outlaws. “External goods” are meant to be instruments at the service of communities of the common good. So when it comes to thinking about wealth creation in a way that conduces to the real good of human beings, we first have to ask: what community are we trying to serve?