Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Wealth and Sex, Part I

Humans think about wealth almost as much as they think about sex. Sex we know pretty well. But what, exactly, is wealth?

Wealth can be defined as the ownership of socially desirable property. This definition presupposes three things.

First, there must be a network of humans in social relationships. A man on a desert island cannot be wealthy. Wealth is a social phenomenon.

Second, there must be some kind of property law. It might be at the individual level, the family level, or even the small group level, but at some point, there must be a clear line drawn between "mine and yours" or "ours and theirs."

Third, the property in question must be desirable to other members of the society. Just because you have a lot of stuff and you really like it doesn't mean you're wealthy. Wealth is more than just what you like. Other people have to like it, too. The greater the number of people who like it, and the greater the intensity of their desire, the more valuable that property becomes. That's why an ounce of gold is more valuable than an ounce of silver. Value is a function of desire.

Once all of these conditions are met, humans can identify and accumulate wealth. That wealth might be measured in cows, cacao beans, baskets of fruit, bars of gold, stock certificates, brokerage statements or any of the thousands of other kinds of property humans have adopted as wealth throughout history and into the present day, but the essential nature of wealth remains the same: it is the ownership of socially desirable property. But that leaves us with another question. Why do humans desire wealth in the first place?

The answer is biological. There are two biological imperatives in the natural world. All life is driven by the desire to survive and the desire to successfully reproduce. Wealth enables humans to do both. At all times and in all societies, wealth is first and foremost a means survival. After that, it is a means of taking care of other socially important individuals.

In the final analysis, humans desire wealth because they want to live, and because they want to take care of other people who are important to them. And who are the most likely beneficiaries of their care? Why, their children, of course.

It turns out wealth and sex aren't so unrelated after all. Think about that the next time you think about...whatever.

Image property of Walter O. LeCroy

No comments: