We’re told that public benefits create moral hazards because they make people dependent on the government, and there’s nothing worse (according to this common theory) than giving a poor person the sense that they don’t need to work for a living. But great wealth, which we too easily value as something to be desired in and of itself, presents a more dangerous risk to the democratic values we cherish as Americans.
We’re familiar with the idea that greed is destructive, but that isn’t exactly what I have in mind. Greed is, if anything, an even greater temptation for the poor. Greed drives non-wealthy people to the local convenience store whenever the Lotto jackpot is bursting at the seams. Rather than helping one another, we look individually for an escape through riches. Greed is fundamentally selfish. As Americans, we tend to believe that extreme wealth would miraculously transform us into happy beings, as if we wouldn’t carry into our new situation our same old self and the old habits of unhappiness that we’ve never been able to shake.
Far from an escape, great wealth creates special moral dangers. You may recall Jesus’s judgment in Matthew 19:24, that “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.” This statement comes as a reflection on the life of the rich man who cannot bring himself to give up his many possessions—to give them away to the poor—in order to follow Jesus. The rich man goes away troubled, and Jesus tells his disciples that the man’s attachment to wealth is spiritually fatal. Comfort comes in many forms. Spiritual sloth is widespread socially. You don’t have to be wealthy to be as bulky as a spiritual camel.
So, there is greed and the lazy attachment to comforts and prestige. But what we also see in the lives of many wealthy and famous people, if we pay attention, is a special moral vulnerability. What’s unique to the wealthy is a kind of power that permits them to live without moral scrutiny.
You’ll see this even with ordinary bosses. I’ve known bosses who essentially knew that they could get away with crimes against workers because the workers were afraid of losing their jobs. Harassment and abuse are the temptations that confront people who live without oversight and lack the internal restraint of real moral principles. We see the extreme case in people like Jeffrey Epstein, the now-infamous financial whiz who knew that his money and prestige would serve to protect him from charges of sex trafficking and the rape of children because the people around him, his subordinates and the young girls whom he prostituted, would be too afraid to challenge him. Meanwhile, his wealthy friends, mostly men, but also women, knew what he was doing but excused him, because he was part of the club, part of the jet-set who owned newspapers, ran corporations, enjoyed political clout, or dealt in million-dollar transactions—people accustomed to living without moral accountability.
Democracy is centrally about checks and balances. As a people, we depend on the power of oversight, the right to investigate, the ability to hold officials accountable. Great wealth can lift an individual above the law, especially in a society of individuals who worship wealth and dream of a life without social constraints.
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