Friday, June 22, 2007

Moral Fortunes

There are only two ways to accumulate significant wealth. One is to steal it. The other is to earn it.

For most of human history, stealing it was the preferred method. This explains why the oldest moral codes often associate the accumulation of wealth with questionable moral conduct. Sayings such as "The love of money is the root of all evil" or "It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God" make more sense when viewed in the context of a culture whose first-hand experience was that the quickest way to get rich was by using violence and fraud.

The effects of this historical experience are with us today. We regularly hear the idioms "filthy rich" and "stinking rich" tossed about indiscriminately, without ever asking why wealth should be filthy, or why it should stink. These idioms are vestiges of another time and place. They unnecessarily confuse the moral issue of wealth creation in the modern world.

Moral fortunes are built by earning it, not stealing it. The only way to earn a fortune is to engage in mutually beneficial trading. As the economist Murray Rothbard put it, "The greater a man's income, the greater his service to others." Sam Walton died a rich man because he earned it. Bill Gates is rich because he earned it.

This is not to say every fortune in the world is the result of honest and moral effort. Hugo Chavez, Fidel Castro, and Robert Mugabe all have personal fortunes (somewhere). But they did not earn them. They stole them, using violence and fraud on the grandest scale of all. Rather than lie and steal one person at a time, they used politics to loot whole populations. People like this may be rich, but their fortunes are not moral.

Bill Gates is rich. Hugo Chavez is stinking rich.

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