A question of Wealth
Our relationship with wealth and economic prosperity is a central aspect of modern society at a societal and individual level. We struggle though some times, at both levels, to fully comprehend or even interrogate that relationship, as much psychological as it is practical in nature.
Personally I am very lucky in terms of my material circumstances. I never have to think about the cost of putting food on the table (as would have been the case for some of my not so distant ancestors) I have a roof over my head and enough disposable income to indulge my interests and look after the needs of my family. I realise that many in this country and across the world are not in such a fortunate position. Yet
I still I find the issue of wealth a difficult one at times.
Our relationship with wealth can be seen through a number of lenses.
First at its crudest level, our economic activity and pursuit of wealth allows us to meet our most fundamental material needs and those of our families. For a majority of the human race this is still a daily challenge with 3 billion people still living on $2 a day and it remains for me an indictment of our human spirit and intelligence that, amidst all our intellectual and technological achievements, we have not found an answer to addressing the most basic issues of material poverty.
Beyond those basic needs, the acquisition of wealth is often linked to a pursuit of status. The more I have, the more important I am. Ever since the coming of agriculture we have developed systems of displaying our material wealth through symbols of conspicuous consumption. As a result we often see wealth in relative rather than absolute terms and our material aspirations are set not just by what we perceive we need ourselves but by comparison to what others have. Yet there is much evidence that the resulting growth of income inequality has eroded social cohesiveness in ways which are detrimental to our sense of wellbeing.
We also see wealth as a security against the future for ourselves or our families. Our ability to generate a surplus as individuals or associations has allowed us to make provision for the future or against the consequences of misfortune. In most of the western world at least we have succeeded in using our wealth to provide a collective security against threats such as old age and illness. Yet we live in age of growing uncertainty and there is a sense of angst as to whether the vehicles we have created for this purpose such as the NHS will be fit for purpose in the future.
Wealth also allows us to make choices about our lifestyle beyond the satisfaction of our immediate material needs. I would miss the freedom to travel which has been a routine part of my adult life while a privilege for my parents’ generation. It is easy to take things for granted and think that, once enjoyed, it is impossible to live without something.
Finally wealth can also provide a means of power and control. Wealth can buy access or help jump a queue or less selfishly help solve a problem which the State would never address. The decisions we make about how we use our wealth are a crucial part of our ability to do good or bad in the world. I do not regret the ability I had to resolve issues about my son’s education, where the state system was seriously failing his needs. I am pleased that I, and many others, have had the resources to contribute to charities knowing that our gifts can make an immediate difference to a cause which I believe is important. However in general, both explicitly and implicitly, the influence of the wealthier sections of society is often disproportionate and the poor are increasingly excluded de facto from political influence.
In the last decade there has been some helpful reflection on whether our success in western societies in increasing our material prosperity has made us any happier. The answer appears to be a resounding no. While the rich do appear to be happier than the poorest and while increased wealth makes a big difference to the happiness of the poorest, in general increased levels of wealth do not translate into increased levels of happiness and well-being. Indeed, in this country, levels of happiness have been static since the mid-1970s.
The science of happiness suggests that our sense of well-being is more broadly based and that social factors such as family relationships and a sense of community and issues of belief and values are just as crucial. If the price for our increased material prosperity is a greater sense of fragmentation in our society and lowering of level of trust between individuals then this appears, not unsurprisingly to erode the potential gains in well-being which an improvement in our material circumstances bring.
None of these issues are straightforward to resolve at either a societal or individual level. We appear trapped in a model of politics which is dependent on the need for ongoing economic growth. We may rail against that but at the same time, as we have been reminded over the last 5 years the consequences of stagnation and decline are also very difficult to manage. We can recognise the social consequences of growing income inequality but, at the same time, we lack effective political and practical strategies to address this in a globalised world where the authority of the nation state is much diminished.
In Padua in Northern Italy the beautiful Scrovegni Chapel houses a set of the most wonderful frescoes of the master Giotto, dedicated to the Virgin Mary. They were commissioned by Enrico Scrovegni a banker who at the end of his life appears to have shown some remorse for the wealth his family has accumulated by the practice of usury. One of the frescoes (in the picture at the head of this blog) captures the banker himself making penance for his sins at the Last Judgement. They epitomise for me a striking moment of reflection on an individual’s relationship with their wealth.
So in the same spirit, my focus in this blog is not to call for social revolution or a New Jerusalem but rather to invite personal reflection on the uneasy relationship which we have with Wealth as individuals and as a society and to challenge us to think of the different ways in which it can contribute to the greatest good of the greatest number.