Saturday, March 25, 2006

Why not be a Billionaire?

I'm writing this as a sort of response to something that Will Shetterly wrote on his blog recently. I won't paraphrase his article - if you want to see what this is in response to, I encourage you to read his blog, which is very much worth reading, despite the fact that I don't entirely agree with what he said in this particular case. Or rather, I don't think it's a useful answer.

One motivation for becoming a billionaire would be the theory that "I can do better for the world with the billions I earn than the world would do with those same billions, left to its own devices. So I will earn this money as best I can, and use it to make the world a better place." I'm not asserting that this is a correct reason to try to be a billionaire, but it's as good a reason as any, and it's one that at least some wealthy people seem to live by.

For whatever reason, I know quite a few wealthy and formerly-wealthy people. I know people who have spent themselves into the poor house helping others. I know people who have been wealthy and lost their wealth through bad investments. And I've exchanged email with people who have stolen more than I have earned in my life, and are still poor.

My experience thus far confirms the truism that the rich are just like everyone else, only they have more money. Yes, things do tend to go better for them, because one of the things they can afford is better lawyers. But I haven't seen a lot of evidence to suggest that as a class, they are less generous than poor people, or that as a class, they are more generous, or that they are more honest, or less honest.

I think looking at them enjoying their wealth and saying "they are being selfish" is, if perhaps somewhat true, still not very productive. The problem of a person who is living in poverty is not that there are people who are living well. It is that they are living in poverty. If we want to help them, we could take wealth from the rich, and give it to the poor, or we could try to create more prosperity, without taking anything from anyone.

We are already part of the way to doing that. There are tragically poor people in the United States, but there are fewer than there were at any previous point in history, if you discount the period of unprecedented prosperity in the United States in the latter half of the 20th century. If you look at just that little slice, then you can definitely see a downturn in the past thirty years, and that's a shame. But the point is that we really are wealthier as a nation than we were at the start of the 20th century, and even the poor people in this country really do benefit from that.

There are tragically poor people in the world, and there are more of them than ever in history, but even there the standard of living in many "overpopulated" countries has risen, and continues to rise - e.g., India and China. The way China has increased the welfare of its people is not always pretty, and the increase is no more uniform than it has been in the United States. But it's an increase that has potential - I recently read a fairly credible prediction that the standard of living in China would be the same as in the U.S. in about twenty-five years, which is extraordinary considering how China started the previous century.

When you hear about people starving in the streets, or worse, see them, the need to solve their problems now is overwhelming. And it's true that if all the wealth in the world were distributed evenly, then at least for a moment the problem would be solved.

But therein lies the problem: the reason people in the world are poor, and others are rich, is not that there isn't enough wealth to go around, and it's not that there aren't well-intentioned people in the world, who would give the shirt off their back to help another person. It is that there is a systemic problem in the world that prevents an even distribution of wealth from persisting, and that allows wealth to form pockets, and poverty to form pockets.

It's not a conspiracy of people. Yes, there are people who conspire to retain their wealth. There are criminals who take wealth from those who have earned it. But the evil that lies in the hearts of people and encourages them to allow this situation to continue lies at the hearts of just as many poor people as rich ones.

To really change the world, it doesn't do to overthrow the existing regime, whatever it happens to be. That's been tried, to no avail. The trick is to render the regime obsolete. To make the world a better place by becoming better people. And the only agency of change that can transform a person who is less able to be part of a utopia into one who is more able is for that person to be the agent of their own change.

If this seems hopeless, in a sense it is. You can't feed the poor that you see by trying this method of changing the world. The poor that you feed with this method haven't been born yet. You don't get the immediate satisfaction of seeing a happier world. You just have to have faith that you are working to destroy the system that makes the world what it is.

I have a friend who's spending his surplus from a fairly fortunate couple of years to become someone who understands biochemistry to the point where he can work on developing machines that can fix the human body; ultimately, to destroy aging, and to destroy poor health. He isn't demanding that anyone else do it. He's taken personal responsibility for creating a world where there is no word for "sick."

I don't know whether he'll succeed or not, but that's what I'm talking about. You could call what he's doing an outward activity, and it is, but the thing that makes it possible is the motivation he has in his mind. And if the future holds any kind of genuine utopia, it is people who have the same motivation in their minds who will ultimately create it.

2 Comments:

Blogger Mark said...

I have a friend who's spending his surplus from a fairly fortunate couple of years to become someone who understands biochemistry to the point where he can work on developing machines that can fix the human body; ultimately, to destroy aging, and to destroy poor health. He isn't demanding that anyone else do it. He's taken personal responsibility for creating a world where there is no word for "sick."

Oooh! A real example of becoming an angel?
Thanks for posting this, Ted. It's making me think about how to be appropriate with any "successes" in life.

By the way, do get in touch if you need any computer help. You have my SSH key, after all.

Saturday, March 25, 2006 1:48:00 PM  
Blogger Will Shetterly said...

I'm all for making billions. I'm only opposed to keeping them. If Bill Gates really thinks the world is better because he has a mansion, I must laugh loudly.

Here's the quick answer to "we could try to create more prosperity, without taking anything from anyone." We already have the prosperity. We just aren't sharing it. If this was a Christian country, John's advice that those who have two coats should give one to someone who has none would result in a home for every American.

And, no, I don't believe in change by force; I agree entirely that the current system needs to be made obsolete and not simply toppled.

Much more on this when I Finish My Novel.

Sunday, March 26, 2006 12:22:00 AM  

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