Wealth Without Work

Published from my blog here.

by Glen Pearson

There was a time not so very long ago when wealth was associated with more human values and community benefits. Riches gained through speculation and extravagance were frowned upon, even in Gandhi’s time. Instead there was the importance of patient and diligent work. Young men and women were encouraged to start at the bottom, toil through the regular disciplines of the workplace, until they achieved higher prospects. Even the most ardent of capitalists maintained, in their public profile at least, that wealth derived from its contribution to the general good and would lead to the advance and happiness of future generations.

Fast-forward to today and we can see the result of money shedding the last vestiges of its moral accountability, especially to community. When hard work was extolled as a virtue in, and of, itself, a person’s reputation was often based on his or her performance within a community context. Diligent toil was noted and appreciated. It spoke to ethical character, a disciplined spirit, and a responsibility to the greater life.

In a world where the possession of wealth is more important than how it was acquired it no longer is of consequence as to the methods used to accumulate riches. Many of the world’s top millionaires and billionaires are decent and diligent people who often practice philanthropy. The particular manner in how they raised their money is never as important as the fact that they possess it. Our modern world is now faced with the uncomfortable reality that much of this wealth came from cheap labour, the avoidance of taxes, or resulted in environmental harm.

Back in the Great Depression days of the 1930s, Eugene Debs worried about how wealth and employment were slowly losing touch with one another:

“I am opposing a social order in which it is possible for one man who does absolutely nothing that is useful to amass a fortune of hundreds of millions of dollars, while millions of men and women who work all the days of their lives secure barely enough for a wretched existence.”

Money — that devious moral trap of old — had quickly been embraced and brought home like a new family member. Gone were the questions of conscience, the nagging doubts of having too much. The former denunciations of the wealthy had given way to full-blown adulation and respect. And we must be honest with ourselves in this regard. We all want it. We all wouldn’t mind more of it. And in the end, we don’t want to live without it. So we can’t examine this from some sort of moral distance because we are now enmeshed in its tentacles.

How did it come to be that time disappeared from our modern culture? Why, in our obvious affluence, do we no longer have the luxury of time? Virtually everyone we know claims to be busier than ever before. After years of invention designed to free us from labour, we are left in the state of having no time left! The great religious teachings would remind us that in the destruction of time is the destruction of the things that truly matter in life. Our pursuit of money has left us “time-poor.”

Why is it that we seem to run dry of so many blessings when in fact we have more money than ever before? One would have thought that the possession of increased funds would provide more control over our own personal lives but the opposite appears to be the case.

In many senses we are becoming emotionally poor, scrambling to deal with the pressures money brings upon us. If one thinks of poverty as being without certain things then certainly many of us qualify as emotionally destitute — not enough time, not enough meaning, not enough solace, not enough time for meaningful relationships. We might not view ourselves in such a fashion but we are, for all intents and purposes, an impoverished people living in affluence.

The obvious importance of the issue has gone through a transformation of sorts. More and more, the world over, responsible questions about money, such as how much does one really require, how much is given for a certain purpose, how much is too much, are rapidly disappearing from view. The urge to just get the things of luxury that money can buy is becoming a force that rivals all great historic pursuits of human life.

Our time of permitting ourselves to be romanced by money are now over. We have seen the emptiness that comes from such a pursuit. When we are happier shopping than healing our planet we know we are in trouble.

The time has come to use money itself for what it was originally intended — a facilitator into the deeper veins of compassion, justice and meaning that characterize the broader life.

This is the first of a series of blogs taken from my just completed book The Seven Social Sins,” as expressed by Mahatma Gandhi. Next post — Pleasure Without Conscience.