The Meaning of Wealth
Frank Cocozzelli printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Sun Nov 14, 2010 at 02:25:55 PM EST
I based the title of my last post, The Miserly Society upon a term used by the economist John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946).  In this post I want to further explain what the revolutionary thinker meant by "miserly"; how it ran contrary to what wealth meant to him as well as his contemporary, the Catholic economist Monsignor John A. Ryan (1869-1945); and how their often similar views matter now more than ever -- especially in responding to the economic agenda of the modern American Religious Right.
Keynes' and Ryan help us to answer such questions as "what is the meaning of wealth?" And "what is its purpose and how much is necessary?" These are fundamental questions that need to be answered afresh in every age.  And for liberals in America, we also need to answer "what is the relationship between wealth creation and liberty?  Our answers to these questions have everything to do with the political viability of the Left - religious or otherwise.

Both economists - one a British atheist and the other, an Irish-American Catholic priest - understood the elements of economic justice. And although Keynes arrived at his views from different experiences and beliefs, he defined it in a way Ryan would approve: the balancing of economic efficiency, individual rights, and yes, social justice. As I pointed out in my last post, the gathering of wealth has a purpose beyond simply becoming rich; it was a means to live an agreeable, reasonable life, free of the privations of poverty.

Author Robert Skidelksy summarized Keynes' take on wealth in Keynes: The Return of the Master :

By 'love of money' Keynes means two things, between which he did not always distinguish. The first was the objectless pursuit of wealth. The second was a specific subset of the first, which was the disposition to 'board' or not spend money-the psychology of the miser. The first was the engine which drove our capitalism; the second was the brake on its progress, which related particularly to uncertainty.

As well as:

Briefly stated, his conclusion was that the pursuit of money - what he called 'love of money'- was justified only to the extent that it led to a 'good life.' And a good life was not what made people better off: it was what made them good. To make the world ethically better was the only justifiable purpose of economic striving.

Keynes's contemporary, the distributive justice advocate Monsignor Ryan arrived at a similar conclusion. Ryan biographer Harlan Beckley wrote in Passion for Justice: Retrieving the Legacies of Walter Rauschenbusch, John A. Ryan, and Reinhold Niebuhr:

All persons have a right to whatever they need to achieve the proximate end of their rational nature. Satisfying this aspect of the canon of needs demands near equality in the distribution of a minimal level of "external goods, because all people have equal needs for a decent livelihood, rational liberties, education, and so forth."

Keynes and Ryan both rose to prominence in the first half of the twentieth century when economics was viewed as a moral science, and both men did so through an Aristotelian lens. We may define this approach as seeking to engage in endeavors in a just, virtuous manner, eschewing extreme behavior for moderation. It also incorporates the idea that there is an undeniable connection between contribution and receipt and the individual and society. Ryan came to such thinking through his Thomistic training; Keynes via his studies under the philosopher G.E. Moore.

Their view about the role of taxes and the economy run contrary to what we usually hear from the contemporary Religious Right:  That progressive taxation is either confiscatory (Michael Novak) or must remain low for moral reasons (Robert P. George). It perfectly echoes the conservative claim that higher tax rates on the wealthy constitutes "a penalty for success."

This idea has gained more traction than many of us would like to believe. But just this week alone I had two friends claim that taxes are a penalty for success when I suggested that the well-to-do could handle a modest increase on their federal tax rate - especially those corporate CEOs who either hoard their companies' profits, and pay themselves exorbitant salaries, bonuses and dividends instead of investing in new equipment or better yet, workers' salaries.

But such notions as "confiscation" and "penalizing success."  have little to do with the realities we face.  "The goal of progressive taxes," as Beckley observed about Ryan, "for example, was to equalize sacrifices, not to achieve equality. Taxes should never be so progressive as to discourage socially useful activity or deny rewards for productive efficiency." To put into a contemporary context, imposing a 40% tax rate upon an unmarried CEO earning seven figures a years is a bit more just than a rate of 35% -- especially when a married laborer earning $35,000 a year pays a federal tax rate of 25%.

As I discussed in my last post, taxation is an important tool for creating wealth for an entire society.  Those who espouse the evisceration of such useful taxation are frankly arguing on behalf of an oligarchic few.  The complaint about the cost of nannies and elite private schools for their children not withstanding, taxation can alleviate burdensome national debt, finance job-creating infrastructure construction, control inflation and prevent the concentration of economic power in the hands of the few.  Indeed, the dogmatic opposition to progressive taxation is the economic mindset that creates the fertile ground for sub-prime mortgages and the buccaneer financial instruments upon which they are predicated.

And yet, Novak has claimed that progressive taxation is a denial of liberty, an unwarranted intrusion on the successful to their right to wealth.  When Novak and his ilk raise the issue of liberty in this way, they do not mention how their unwillingness to part company with an extra 4% of their bountiful income so that the greater part of society can achieve a measure of financial independence may well violate a key component of liberty itself, the harm principle. According to philosopher John Stuart Mill, this is the concept that "the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others."

What the laissez-faire apostles of the Religious Right are advocating is not liberty, but a form of harm; i.e., reliance upon those who provide credit. When wages are kept low, credit becomes the only viable option to provide for food, clothing and shelter. Such behavior does not define ethical behavior or religiosity let alone liberty, but instead, the attributes of the miser.

Novak and George are attempting to equate taxation with sin in the eyes of religious Americans.  This effort to cloak laissez-faire economics with holiness, and to elevate miserliness as inherently moral, is at odds with historic Christian principles.

Keynes and Ryan lived in a time when the well-being of the individual being inextricably linked to the betterment of the whole society was an ascendent idea. In that period, free-thinking people understood that miserliness and an open-ended definition of economic liberty both caused and prolonged the Great Depression. Certainly Keynes and Ryan understood that true economic freedom was tied to reasonableness, self-discipline and yes, social justice. And while they were imperfect in their applications of social justice, they were central players in pointing us in a better direction; a trend that lasted until the coming of a late twentieth century conservatism.    

Now, a different set of thinkers seems to have America's ear. That set includes neo-conservatives such as Robert P. George and Michael Novak who, their Catholicism notwithstanding, make the perverse case for the wealthy miser and call it liberty.

Opposition to the judicious use of taxation is not the Religious Right's only economic poison pill.  In the next post we shall examine how Robert P. George would have real prosperity crucified upon a cross of gold.

Related Posts:

The Miserly Society

Catholic Tea Party Economics

Catholic Right: Are the Neo-Cons Out and the Tea-Partiers In?

Catholic Neocons Distort Church Teachings on Economics

Besides the books hyperlinked above, I strongly suggest the following:

Paul Davidson's The Keynes Solution: The Path to Global Economic Prosperity


Joseph Michael McShane, S.J.'s Sufficiently Radical: Catholicism, Progressivism and the Bishops' Program of 1919.

Besides this invaluable tome, I strongly recommend Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.'s Crisis of the Old Order: 1919-1933, The Age of Roosevelt, Volume I, particularly chapter 23, "The Agenda of Reform."

Why? Simply because it discusses the period starting from 1919 through the inauguration of FDR. The similarity of economic issues between now and then is uncanny. In fact, it seems that we are fighting the same battles that progressives thought we had won seventy-five, plus years ago.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Sun Nov 14, 2010 at 02:35:21 PM EST

Great work Frank. I'll give the conservatives this much credit: They are consistent about one class of people determing how the people not in their class should live their lives. The wealthy tell the poor what's good for them, men tell women what's good for them, straights tell gays what's good for them, the self righteous tell sinners what's good for them. All exactly like parents telling their children what's good for them. The unequal distribution of wealth is eventually going to lead to the masses of 'children' revolting. No amount of deceptive 'parental' blathering is going to matter then.

by colkoch on Mon Nov 15, 2010 at 08:49:16 AM EST

This is an excellent refutation of the Catholic rightwing's pseudo-ecomonic-mumbo-jumbo to avoid having to keep the great commandment of loving one's neighbor.

by bettyclermont on Sun Nov 14, 2010 at 03:41:43 PM EST

Well done, Frank! It's great to have a reminder that there was a time when we believed in a commitment to the common good. Novak, George and company would have us forget that.

by khughes1963 on Sun Nov 14, 2010 at 11:03:30 PM EST

Will just add a couple of links to the same material, one is the transcript, the other the actual tape. It's time we open the discussion, because our world wars and tensions are not just over "Oil: Politics: Religion: and Historical grievance" wars arise when green drives our ambition, and we not only hoard what we have, but we seek to take what others rightfully possess.

by chaplain on Mon Nov 15, 2010 at 10:53:55 AM EST hts-dirty64766

by chaplain on Mon Nov 15, 2010 at 10:55:07 AM EST

WWW Talk To Action

Terror At Planned Parenthood: Facing The Consequences Of The Far Right's Lies
In the wake of Friday's horrific shootings at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, we're hearing calls to deescalate the rhetoric around the......
By Rob Boston (0 comments)
Progressives Are Taking Up Religious Freedom Day
In the heat of our political moment, we sometimes don't see how our future connects deeply to our past. But the Christian Right does......
By Frederick Clarkson (2 comments)
Freedom vs. Fear: Restricting Religious Liberty Isn't The Answer To Terrorism
Last week, a community meeting was held in Spotsylvania County, Va., to discuss plans by a group of Muslims who want to relocate and......
By Rob Boston (2 comments)
Christian Right Electoral Hegemony, Rising in the States
This is a revised, updated and retitled post I did on the long term trend of significant political progress of the Christian Right and......
By Frederick Clarkson (5 comments)
Who's Been Naughty, Who's Been Nice?: The AFA Explains It All For You
If you're like me, you've been sitting around anxiously awaiting the release of the American Family Association's "Naughty or Nice" list of retailers for......
By Rob Boston (3 comments)
U.S. Department Of Judeo-Christian Values?: Kasich Proposes New Religious Propaganda Arm
According to some polls, the leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination is Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon who believes that ancient Egyptians built......
By Rob Boston (5 comments)
Scripture Stories: Religious Right Claims About The `Aitken Bible' Don't Hold Up
Tomorrow several conservative members of the U.S. House of Representatives plan to hold a public reading of the Aitken Bible on the East Front......
By Rob Boston (2 comments)
The Tallest Statue in the Nation of an Individual
Many a day I drove on I 45 past the statue of Sam Houston.  The monument to the statesman is the largest in the......
By wilkyjr (1 comment)
Honoring Everyone Who Served: A Veterans Day Reflection
In 1952, a private group sought permission from government officials to erect a large cross atop Mt. Soledad near San Diego. They did it......
By Rob Boston (5 comments)
One Million Maniacs?: AFA Attacks Magazine For Highlighting Family Headed By Same-Sex Couple
I have a daughter named Claire who is 21 years old and working her first job in journalism since graduating from college. I'm awfully......
By Rob Boston (0 comments)
What Catholic Neo-Confederates Don't Want You To Know About Secession
During the summer of 2013 I wrote several posts about Catholic Neo-Confederates. My purpose was to explain the activities of libertarians such as Tom......
By Frank Cocozzelli (10 comments)
Sex And Common Sense: Texas Public School Reconsiders `Chastity' Speaker
A self-appointed expert on sex and relationships won't speak at an El Paso, Texas, high school - for now.Jason Evert runs an outfit called......
By Rob Boston (2 comments)
Two Trials that Impacted American Religion
Silent movie, Birth of a Nation, became the first blockbuster screen phenomena.  Civil Rights groups deplored the production and sought to ban it.  It......
By wilkyjr (3 comments)
The Francis Trajectory.
The recent dust-up over the meeting between Pope Francis and culture warrior Kim Davis has caused the Pontiff's stock to fall somewhat among liberals.......
By Frank Cocozzelli (11 comments)
Taking Care Of Business: Religious Right Group Plans `Religious Liberty' Ratings For Companies
My inbox this morning contained a press release from the American Family Association (AFA). The Tupelo, Miss.-based Religious Right group has exciting news: It......
By Rob Boston (2 comments)

Evidence violence is more common than believed
Think I've been making things up about experiencing Christian Terrorism or exaggerating, or that it was an isolated incident?  I suggest you read this article (linked below in body), which is about our great......
ArchaeoBob (2 comments)
Central Florida Sheriff Preached Sermon in Uniform
If anyone has been following the craziness in Polk County Florida, they know that some really strange and troubling things have happened here.  We've had multiple separation of church and state lawsuits going at......
ArchaeoBob (1 comment)
Demon Mammon?
An anthropologist from outer space might be forgiven for concluding that the god of this world is Mammon. (Or, rather, The Market, as depicted by John McMurtry in his book The Cancer Stage of......
daerie (0 comments)
Anti-Sharia Fever in Texas: This is How It Starts
The mayor of a mid-size Texan city has emerged in recent months as the newest face of Islamophobia. Aligning herself with extremists hostile to Islam, Mayor Beth Van Duyne of Irving, Texas has helped......
JSanford (2 comments)
Evangelicals Seduced By Ayn Rand Worship Crypto-Satanism, Suggest Scholars
[update: also see my closely related stories, "Crypto-Cultists" and "Cranks": The Video Paul Ryan Hoped Would Go Away, and The Paul Ryan/Ayn Rand/Satanism Connection Made Simple] "I give people Ayn Rand with trappings" -......
Bruce Wilson (10 comments)
Ted Cruz Anointed By Pastor Who Says Jesus Opposed Minimum Wage, and Constitution Based on the Bible
In the video below, from a July 19-20th, 2013 pastor's rally at a Marriott Hotel in Des Moines, Iowa, Tea Party potentate Ted Cruz is blessed by religious right leader David Barton, who claims......
Bruce Wilson (1 comment)
Galt and God: Ayn Randians and Christian Rightists Expand Ties
Ayn Rand's followers find themselves sharing a lot of common ground with the Christian Right these days. The Tea Party, with its stress on righteous liberty and a robust form of capitalism, has been......
JSanford (2 comments)
Witchhunts in Africa and the U.S.A.
Nigerian human rights activist Leo Igwe has recently written at least two blog posts about how some African Pentecostal churches are sending missionaries to Europe and the U.S.A. in an attempt to "re-evangelize the......
Diane Vera (2 comments)
Charles Taze Russell and John Hagee
No doubt exists that Texas mega-church Pastor John Hagee would be loathe to be associated with the theology of Pastor C.T. Russell (wrongly credited with founding the Jehovah's Witnesses) but their theological orbits, while......
COinMS (0 comments)
A death among the common people ... imagination.
Or maybe my title would better fit as “Laws, Books, where to find, and the people who trust them.”What a society we've become!The wise ones tell us over and over how the more things......
Arthur Ruger (0 comments)
Deconstructing the Dominionists, Part VI
This is part 6 of a series by guest front pager Mahanoy, originally dated November 15, 2007 which I had to delete and repost for technical reasons. It is referred to in this post,......
Frederick Clarkson (2 comments)
Republican infighting in Mississippi
After a bruising GOP runoff election for U.S. Senator, current MS Senator Thad Cochran has retained his position and will face Travis Childers (Democrat) in the next senate election. The MS GOP is fractured......
COinMS (3 comments)
America's Most Convenient Bank® refuses to serve Christians
Representatives of a well known faith-based charitable organization were refused a New Jersey bank’s notarization service by an atheist employee. After inquiring about the nature of the non-profit organization and the documents requiring......
Jody Lane (4 comments)
John Benefiel takes credit for GOP takeover of Oklahoma
Many of you know that Oklahoma has turned an unrecognizable shade of red in recent years.  Yesterday, one of the leading members of the New Apostolic Reformation all but declared that he was responsible......
Christian Dem in NC (2 comments)
John Benefiel thinks America is under curse because Egyptians dedicated North America to Baal
You may remember that Rick Perry put together his "Response" prayer rallies with the help of a slew of NAR figures.  One of them was John Benefiel, an Oklahoma City-based "apostle."  He heads up......
Christian Dem in NC (5 comments)

More Diaries...

All trademarks and copyrights on this page are owned by their respective companies. Comments, posts, stories, and all other content are owned by the authors. Everything else 2005 Talk to Action, LLC.