Saturday, May 14, 2011

A Kind of Gluttony

Perhaps it is the debate over whether to extend the "Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy" or the current urge to do something to benefit from the unseemly large profits of Big Oil, or perhaps it is the omnipresence of the walking, talking caricature of a nouveau riche boor that is Donald Trump, but I find myself given to speculate regarding what it is that compels some of us to want to be very, very rich and do all that is possible to achieve that status.

I think it is common to want to be comfortable, to be able to eat and drink well, have leisure time, have and enjoy certain material goods, give our children certain economic advantages.  However, we can achieve such things without being exceedingly wealthy.  Some of the more regrettable personalities intruding upon us these days have referred to those most would consider to be well-off as being "comfortably poor" but I doubt it is necessary to be "poor" even in this fashion to be comfortable.

There's nothing wrong with wanting to be comfortable, and I would go so far as to say it would be good, or at least nice, if all of us were.  But what is it that drives a person who is comfortable in this fashion to want to be very rich?  To want, in other words, more, more and yet more of that which allows him/her to be comfortable?

The very rich are sometimes justified by themselves and others (usually Republicans in this Great Republic) because they are said to benefit us in some vague manner.  They "make jobs" or do something by being wealthy which is good for the economy.  The wiser of their fans and advocates don't presume to claim that this is why they are wealthy, or that the wealthy eagerly dedicate themselves to making others richer.  In fact, those like Ayn Rand and her Randriods do not merely acknowledge, but rejoice in, the selfishness of the rich and powerful.  The benefit to others is apparently a function of their mere existence, their being, as it were; they radiate our benefit much as God is said to radiate Grace.

Thus there are those who resent it if they are being taxed more than others merely because they are wealthier than others.  Why should they be made to pay more to the State merely because they have more to pay?  Do they not already benefit us all by being wealthy, buying so much, consuming so much, thereby "making jobs" or whatever it is they are supposed to accomplish by doing so?

Frankly, I'm not adverse to the position that they should not be required to pay more than others.  I would be pleased if they paid as much as others did, proportionately.  If we must have an income tax, I confess to being fond of the idea of a flat tax--that all should pay the same percentage of their income as taxes to our benign government.  Get rid of all deductions and exemptions, pay the same percentage, and we would have a wonderfully simple means of taxation it seems to me, and one which is at least arguably fair.  But no doubt this is far too simple an idea to be effective.

Regardless, I don't think the very rich can "justify" themselves in this fashion, nor do I think they should.  They should, however, acknowledge what they are--gluttons of a sort, and pathetic as a result--and we would all likely be better off if they exercised self-control.  They need not devote themselves to the benefit of human kind.  They would do us all a great favor, though, if they weren't very, very rich, and declined to be so because being so is unnecessary to their welfare, and undermines their dignity and indirectly the dignity which should be accorded to others.

Gluttony is, of course, the practice of excessive eating and drinking, and greediness in doing so.  It is in a certain sense disgusting (I don't mean to refer to those with eating disorders, but rather to those who indulge in this kind of excess simply because they are greedy for the pleasure it brings them).  It is infantile self-indulgence in a particularly unpleasant form.  Those who strive to be or are much richer than they need to be to be comfortable indulge in a similar type of unnecessary excess and greediness.

Once one is comfortable, what else would account for the desire to have more and more money and things?  The need to be more and more comfortable, to be very comfortable?  What can compel this kind of acquisitiveness for money and things when there is no longer any reasonable need for them, but a kind of gluttony?

I don't advocate the forcible redistribution of wealth.  But self-control is to be advocated in a time of dwindling resources, and is admirable in any case.  Nobody needs to be exceedingly rich, and it is absurd to claim they do.  The incidental benefit that may result from the excesses of the gluttons for money and power don't compensate for them.


  1. I recently read Frederick Brown's translation of 'Letters from America' wherein Tocqueville and his companion Beaumont express their astonishment at the excessive consumption of food and the open praise of self-interest as conspicuous traits of American society in 1831. Can we criticize such things 180 years later without admitting the fundamental nature of America?

  2. That's an interesting and disturbing consideration. But were Americans peculiarly inclined to such things at that time more so than, say, the British (I assume those authors were familiar with attitudes in France)? Was this a function of the relative "freedom" which may have been lacking at that time elsewhere?