Do We Deserve Our Personal Wealth?
If there’s one thing in society we think we deserve, it’s the money we earn , however we earn it. But do we really deserve it?
Whether we earn money as compensation for work, or we earn interest from investments or profits from a company we own, the vast majority of us are agreed that we deserve the money we are paid. We decide we deserve this money regardless of other factors:
- the overall state of economy
- the value of our currency
- how much or how little someone else got paid for the same work
- how much or how little someone else earned for a similar investment
- how much or little some other business owner profited from a similar business.
We also often decide we deserve more money than we did earn. It’s very, very rare that we decide we deserved less money, except under unusual circumstances where we feel guilty about the amount of money received.
We feel we deserve this money particularly when we see the amount of it that goes to our federal, regional and/or municipal governments, whether this money comes directly off our earnings, or we pay it later. The more money we have, the more likely we are to be upset about the government taking “our” money. It’s our money, we earned it. We deserved it.
But what if we don’t deserve the money we earn?
Money is a Construct
Money is a social construct. Many of us know this. Those pseudo economists who think that only precious metals are valuable delight in reminding us this all the time (especially during economic downturns). But it’s important to remember: money only has value because we have collectively decided it has value. When a society loses faith in its money, the money’s value decreases and potentially disappears. (But the same is true of precious metals, despite what the pseudo economists will say. It’s entirely possible that human beings could one day decide gold is worthless. We haven’t yet, but there’s nothing inherently valuable about gold that makes this impossible. Gold is pretty impractical as a material.)
At some point, human beings figured out we needed a surrogate for trade that would allow trade other than direct barter, which is how currency was invented. So money is a tool, that’s all. It’s a tool we put (a ton of) value in, but it’s just a tool. The invention of money has allowed humans to do literally countless things we couldn’t have if we were still bartering all our goods. Money is one of humanity’s great inventions.
But nothing about the nature of money or what it has allowed us to do as a species implies that anyone deserves the money they currently possess. That might seem weird, as we’re all brought up to believe the exact opposite, but it’s true.
Deserve’s Got Literally Nothing To Do With It
The idea of just desserts — getting what you deserve — is an ancient (pre-Socratics at least) idea in human history. But it is predicated on the idea that the world is fair. The only way in which we all get what we truly deserve is if there is some force ensuring we all get what we deserve, whether that force is karma, god, or something else. But the world is not fair and there is no force within the universe ensuring that human beings get anything they deserve. Witness human suffering.
How many innocent human beings have suffered through no fault of their own throughout history? I have no idea what the number is but I suspect it’s in the billions. Until very recently, most life on earth was suffering in so much as it entailed a high degree of suffering, the vast majority of which had nothing to do with the particular human’s behaviour. Yet the vast majority of us cling to belief systems that have at least some element of the idea of “just desserts,” whether in the present or some future time.
Money is not exempt from the realities of our universe. There’s no cosmic force ensuring you are paid the deserved wage for your job. There’s no cosmic force ensuring you receive the appropriate interest for your investments. (Remember when charging interest was a crime?) There’s no cosmic force ensuring your business will profit if you run it properly. As human beings, we have agreed to use money as a tool. In our society we’ve agreed that the vast majority of labour should be compensated through money, and we have laws that enforce this. We’ve decided that, in order for businesses to grow, it’s a good idea that people who fund them get paid, and we have laws that enforce this.. We’ve decided that it’s a good idea that businesses can have profits rather than just being non-profit, and we have laws about this. None of this implies that any of this money changing hands is actually deserved in the metaphysical sense of the word.
Pay Your Fucking Taxes
To the extent that we deserve money, it’s only because our society has rules that we (usually) follow that say that we are entitled to the money we legally earned. But our society also has rules that say that we responsible to pay money for things, some of which we contract but some of which we are obligated to pay for by being part of the society. These two things are part and parcel. There’s no way you can accept the former — delight in the former, revel in the former — but reject the latter. Yet, increasingly, there are a whole host of people — rich people but, unfortunately, also not so rich people — who think they can reject half of the bargain. The rhetoric around deserving earnings but not being obliged to pay taxes — or, particularly, not being obliged to pay the taxes that you personally feel are too high, regardless of any facts — gets louder and louder. But it is based on nothing. It is based on the acceptance of one half of a bargain made thousands of years ago, but the rejection of the other half. Claiming the money you legally earn in a society is deserved but that you should somehow be able to pay less of what you are obligated to at the same time is just selfishness. The notion that you deserve your earnings is a smokescreen for your greed.
But yet the super rich still believe they can and should take their money out of the country they earned it in and place it in countries where they don’t have to pay as high taxes or any taxes, because that money is “theirs” and they deserved it. And now we have a class of people essentially sucking money out of national economies so that it can sit in places where they can accumulate more, because they think they deserve it.
Money is a social construct. We earn money because the laws of our society allow us to earn money. We only “deserve” the money we make in so much as it was earned legally, in accordance with those laws. We don’t deserve this money on any other level. But the laws of our society also mandate that we contribute some of the money we’ve earned back to the society at large. When billionaires and millionaires move their money outside of the economy it was earned in, they are only doing this because it will allow them to keep more of the money they believe they deserve. It’s pure selfishness, it’s nothing else. And they have no right. Their money hasn’t accumulated to them because they deserve it, because some universal force has deemed them more worthy than you or me. They’ve earned it because they’re good at taking advantage of our economic system and our laws. And now, when they move the money overseas so that they pay fewer taxes, they’re merely taking further advantage of their society (and others) who have failed to prevent this type of tax evasion.
There’s no defense of hoarding money off-shore that isn’t circular or that doesn’t end with the claim that anyone else with this much money would do the same thing. But the fallacious belief that money is deserved, and so we shouldn’t have to pay high taxes, or shouldn’t have to pay taxes at all, is extremely harmful. When the super rich and merely rich take their money out of the economy it was earned in, that economy suffers to a much greater extent than if Joe Average doesn’t declare some of the money he earns in his carpentry business.