Saturday, 2 March 2013

WEIRD Riches

(WEIRD series introduction; Education; Industrialisation; Democracy; Conclusion)

If I tell you it's always better to be rich, you're going to protest, right? You'll think of Scrooge and Scrooge McDuck, or worse yet Ayn Rand and John Galt.

Well, bear with me. I'm no objectivist, that's for sure. I fully accept that financial wealth is a dangerous chimera, and that most of the modern super-rich are not to be trusted (though, it must be said, not all). As ever, I'm more interested in the abstract idea of wealth than the ordinary-language use of the term.

So what do we really mean by 'wealth'? I've talked both in this series and elsewhere about time as a kind of wealth, but while that's a step in the right direction, it doesn't go far enough. We need to ask why time is wealth, and the answer to this is that you need time, basically, in order to do stuff. Wealth is about means - the means to survive and to do more than survive. So really, for wealth to be a universal value in the sense we've been going on and on about in this series, all I need to show is that it's always better to be able to do more things.

In some ways, your reaction to this idea will depend on your opinion of general human nature. Your head may now be filled with nightmare visions of us rampaging unfettered across the galaxy, tainting everything we touch, or you may be mentally cataloguing all the amazing and wonderful achievements of our species instead.

Ultimately, though, it comes back again to a kind of freedom. Just as education frees you to choose your own values, and industrialisation frees you from wasting effort on things you don't value, wealth means freer choice of what you actually do because it means more options to choose from. Most crucially, wealth means you're more likely to be able to do things you value.

Our theme, the whole point of this series, has been values that actually justify a kind of imperialism; values we can advocate universally without risking harm to other cultures. The risk we want to avoid is overruling the decisions of other cultures about their own values, or to put it another way, the danger of imperialism is its potential to oppress. What we are looking for, then, are values that can only ever be forces for liberation (and, yes, there's a question to be asked over the value of freedom, but in the sense that I mean it, I believe I have an answer - though that's a question for another time).

It's true that when we think about the idea of wealth typical of Western society, we think about material wealth. And it's unquestionably true that exporting materialist culture in the way that we've been doing quite enthusiastically for at least the last 200 years (as a particularly good example, look at what happened to Japan after the Second World War) has changed, twisted and damaged many cultures around the world.

This isn't because wealth is a bad thing, though; it's because materialism twists the basic concept of wealth. Materialism holds things to be of intrinsic value, whether those things are flashy cars, nice houses, works of art or consumer electronics. It's a status symbol to drive a BMW or a Lamborghini; it's a status symbol to have a big house. Materialist culture revolves around the idea that the having of things means something over and above what those things allow you to do, be or experience.

The truth of the matter, though, is that value is a fundamentally human creation (I would even go so far as to say that value-creation is the fundamental component of the human condition, but again, this is a post for another time). There's no value in a work of art except that it finds an audience. There's no value in a fast car except that someone wants to drive fast.

And if value is a fundamentally human thing, then the only intrinsic values must be human values - things that are intrinsic to us, not the things we happen to possess. The value of an inert thing is only in the ways it allows us to enrich our own existence; its value is nothing more than the value of whatever it is a means to. Wealth as the accumulation of stuff, then, is only a coherent concept when the stuff is stuff which allows us to pursue our intrinsic values, whatever they are.

Perhaps it's wrong to say that wealth in this more abstract sense is a value at all (something similar might go for our efficiency-based concept of industrialisation). But whether we class it as a value or as some other, more specific category, it's always better to have it, provided it's properly understood. Wealth, ultimately, isn't something that forces you to be anything - it's what allows you to be yourself, to realise your own values.

And in that, it is as universally important as education and industry (and democracy, which we'll come onto next, and which I consider to be the hardest of these values to defend).

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