Material Prosperity Is Immoral
September 26, 2007 § 51 Comments
Well, OK, not really. But having as much material prosperity as it is possible for one to have is immoral. Which is to say, greed is immoral.
What is interesting though, and what I would like to discuss here, is that this doesn’t merely apply to individual persons. It also applies to transcendent entities such as countries and, what I will focus on here, economic systems.
One of the credal tenets of modern global capitalism is that maximizing material prosperity is compatible with the common good. In general, that is, maximizing some quantitative measure of prosperity (say GDP, or perhaps the annual income of the poorest person in a polity – this criticism applies equally well to a socialist conception of maximal prosperity as to a capitalist conception) is thought to be compatible with the common good.
This is, I believe, provably false: maximizing material prosperity (however defined) is in fact demonstrably, and in a very general way, incompatible with the common good. An actual proof with all the rigor the word “proof” implies would require more than a blog post can deliver, but I’ll attempt an outline of the gist of such a proof in this post.
At any given point in time, the system of global capitalism is defined in part by the billions of rules of which it consists. Suppose that in choosing those rules we are not constrained by concern for the common good. Under this unconstrained condition it is possible to achieve a quantitative prosperity value of [Pmax].
Now suppose we further constrain ourselves to choosing rules which are compatible with the common good. Our morally constrained economic system cannot do all the things that the morally unconstrained one can do. The morally unconstrained system has every material capability that the constrained one has, and more. There is nothing that the constrained system can do that the unconstrained one cannot, in terms of maximizing some quantitiative utilitarian measure of prosperity – any quantitative utilitarian measure of prosperity at all. So [Pmax-good] – the same quantitative measure of material prosperity we made of the unconstrained system, applied against the constrained system – will always be lower than [Pmax].
To be really geeky about it, an economic system unfettered by concern for the common good has many more degrees of freedom than a morally constrained system. As a result it has more free energy available to maximize whatever quantitative measure of prosperity we have defined. In every real-world case** the morally unconstrained system is capable of being more materially prosperous than the morally constrained system.
This same kind of argument can be applied to maximizing individual wealth; but for some reason people already intuit that a man who is literally as wealthy as he could possibly be is acting immorally, that is, is operating under the vice of greed. What is perhaps new here, or at least counterintuitive to the American cult of success, is that this is just as true institutionally: that is, transcendent entities like economies and countries which maximize their material wealth, under any quantitative measure of material wealth at all (including egalitarian measures), are necessarily doing evil.
The bottom line is that poverty is a sign (though not a dispositive sign) of virtue, and wealth is a sign (though not a dispositive sign) of vice: not merely in the case of individuals but in the case of economic systems. If we are not self consciously making choices that we know are reducing our material prosperity from what it could be, we are doing evil.
** In the science of statistical mechanics we allow for the possibility-in-principle of all of the molecules of a gas spontaneously ending up on one side of a box instead of all mixed up together. This doesn’t happen in the real world. Economic systems the rules of which are built on the premise of maximizing prosperity cannot cheat entropy in the real world any more than a real bottle of nitrogen can cheat entropy.