Can Everyone be Wealthy?

Emma Goldman

Emma Goldman (the tattoo, not the person)/

It is sometimes asked whether or not everyone can be wealthy. This depends, obviously enough, on what is meant by “wealthy.” Determining what “wealthy” means requires sorting out the nature of wealth.

As might be imagined, there is a fair amount of debate about the true nature of  personal wealth.  While this oversimplifies things, a fairly standard view of wealth is that it consists of the net economic value of a person’s assets minus their liabilities. To be a bit more specific, these assets typically include possessions (cars, guns, art, computers, books, appliances, and so on), monetary resources (cash, for example) and capital resources. Not everyone buys into the stock view, of course. For example, Emma Goldman claimed that “real wealth consists in things of utility and beauty, in things that help to create strong, beautiful bodies and surroundings inspiring to live in. But if man is doomed to wind cotton around a spool, or dig coal, or build roads for thirty years of his life, there can be no talk of wealth.” As another example, some thinkers include non-economic goods (such as knowledge) within the realm of wealth. To keep thing simple and within our current economic system, I will limit the discussion to the “stock” account of wealth (that is, economic assets).

In our current economic system, it is obviously not the case that everyone is wealthy. When this fact is brought up, some folks like to claim that even the poor of today are wealthier than the wealthy of the past. In some ways, this is true. After all, the typically poor person in North America or the United Kingdom has possessions that not even the greatest pharaoh or Caesar possessed (such as a microwave oven). In many other ways, this is not true. After all, a wealthy noble of the past would have land, structures, gold, art, and so on that would make him a wealthy man even today. Also, there is the obvious fact that there are poor people today who are as poor as the poorest people in human history in that they possess just the tatters on their backs and just enough food to not die (at least for the moment). In any case, the fact that the sum total of wealth of humanity is greater now than in the past (even taking into account that there are so many more of us) does not tell us much beyond that (such as whether the current distribution is just or whether we can all be wealthy or not).

Getting back to the main subject, what needs to be determined is what is meant by “wealthy.” As noted above, I am limiting my discussion to economic wealth, but a bit more needs to be said.

In some ways, wealth can be seen as being analogous to height. A person has height if they have any vertical measurement at all. Likewise, a person has wealth if she has any economic assets in excess of her liabilities. This could be as little as a single penny or as much as billions of dollars. Obviously, everyone could (in theory) have wealth, just as everyone can have height. But, of course, a person is not wealthy just because s/he has wealth, no more than a person is tall simply because s/he has height. On the other side, lacking wealth is described as being destitute and lacking height is described as being short.

Continuing the analogy, being wealthy or wealthier  can be seen as analogous to being tall or taller. Being tall means having more height than average  and being taller than another means having more height than that person. Likewise being wealthy would seem to mean having more wealth than average and being wealthier than another means having more wealth than that person. If this view is correct, then we cannot all be wealthy anymore than we can all be tall. Obviously, we could all have the same height or the same wealth, but the terms “tall” and “wealthy” would have no application in these cases. As such, we cannot all be wealthy-if we had the same amount of wealth, then no one would be wealthy.

It could be contended that being wealthy is not a matter of comparison to the wealth of other people, but rather a matter of having economic assets that meet a specified level. Depending on how that level was specified, then everyone could (in theory) be wealthy. Of course, the question of whether or not such a level should be considered wealthy or not would be a matter of debate.

It might be contended that focusing on whether or not everyone can be wealthy is not as important (or interesting) as the question of whether or not everyone can be well-off in the sense of having adequate resources for a healthy and meaningful existence. This is, of course, a subject for another time.

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17 Comments.

  1. I think that’s a great question.

    When we’re trying to make the most sense of the vernacular use of the word ‘wealthy’, it seems like we ought to be talking about wealth as a form of exchange value. Yet there’s nothing about the idea of exchange value that necessitates inequality. And in just the same way, there’s no rule of physics that tells us that everyone must be of different heights. So it seems like it’s a semantic question, not a metaphysical one.

    It’s true that if we were to imagine an egalitarian world where everyone had equal wealth, you would find that certain comparative relational expressions (“taller than”, “wealthier than”) would be pretty useless. But that’s not enough to show that the concepts of “wealthy” or “tall” lose their meaning in those worlds. By analogy, imagine a world where everyone has blue hair — surely, the expression ‘blue hair’ in that world would not be meaningless, though certain phrases (‘bluer hair than’) would be made useless.

    What you need to do is to show that these terms (wealthy, tall) lose their meaning when their antonyms lose any reference to reality. One way to do that is to advocate contrastivism. According to contrastivism, the meaning of a utterance always carries with it an implicit contrast class, meaning: “S is P (instead of C)”. The idea is that you can best express what you mean by comparing it to what you don’t mean. If you change your idea of what you don’t mean (“S is C”), then there’s a sense in which you’ve changed what you mean by “S is P”. So, for instance, if I say “Ed prefers drinking tea”, I am saying something very different if the contrast is “Ed prefers drinking coffee” as opposed to “Ed prefers bathing in tea”.

    So consider a world where everybody has equal wealth. While in this world, the people might still call each other ‘wealthy’, their use of the word would mean something different from our use of that very same word. And this difference in our use and theirs would be a result of the fact that when the citizens of the egalitarian world talk about someone being ‘not wealthy’, they’d be referring to people who have a poor quality of life (failing health, etc. — what we would call ‘absolute poverty’). Compare that with our usage, where we contrast ‘wealthy’ with ‘impoverished’, and by ‘poverty’ we mean any state of material deprivation. Since the contrasts are different, it means that we’re dealing with different meanings.

  2. s. wallerstein (aka amos)

    Interesting.

    I’ve always argued with people who say that everyone is beautiful.

    I claim that it makes no sense to say that everyone is beautiful, since the word “beautiful” has no meaning in the phrase, “everyone is beautiful”.

  3. If I were the only person in the world, would I be wealthy?

  4. Hi Mike,
    Deciding the wealthy by average wealth leads to ridiculous situations, e.g. two people, one with a billion dollars less 1, and the second with a billion and 1 dollars. The avg. would be 1 billion , therefore the first person is not wealthy and the second is wealthy though the percent difference in their assets is infinitesimal.
    As for “having economic assets that meet a specified level” sounds pretty much like average wealth criteria though I know what you mean. Still, big problems, e.g. say it’s agreed that to be wealthy you have to have a staff of people at your beck and call. Well, we can’t all have that. But something more reasonable, I always think if I were wealthy I’d want to buy only the very best wines. Well, probably, every other wine lover would have such a standard. There wouldn’t be enough top quality wine to go around.
    So a more complicated measure of wealth is necessary, for example, say a hundred categories , one of them wine, another personal staff, another automobiles, etc., and one is considered wealthy if they have access to at least 25. Unless everyone is very flexible in their definition of what they want, it’s not going to happen that everyone can be wealthy.

  5. I got stuck reading your first paragraph in which you have “there’s nothing about the idea of exchange value that necessitates inequality.” Isn’t any currency based on exchange value? It would seem to me just the reverse of what you say, i.e. exchange value does necessitate inequality.
    I’m even a little uneasy about the height part, but I do agree with you that the whole thing hinges on semantics.

  6. Leo,

    On one hand, yes. Presumably you could claim ownership of everything. On the other hand, it is not clear whether or not such a classification would have any significance in a world with one person. To re-use my analogy, it would seem odd to claim being tall if one is the only person in the world. Of course, you could be seen as the tallest and also the shortest (and of perfectly average height) since you would be the only one.

  7. Gra,

    The same problem would seem to arise with tallness (if it is a problem). For example, if there are only two people and A is 1 inch taller than B, then A would be tall and B would not. In a two person world, that might seem odd but would also seem true.

    As you note, sorting out what it is to be wealthy is challenging.

  8. GRA,

    It would seem to me just the reverse of what you say, i.e. exchange value does necessitate inequality.

    I’m not sure why! There doesn’t seem to be anything about the idea of exchange value that makes it in principle impossible for people to possess the same amount of dollars in their bank account at the end of each day. e.g., suppose we had a society where the government levelled your wealth upwards or downwards every midnight. Despite these restrictions on the flow of capital, sellers might still determine the value of goods according to market price — that is, by a kind of supply and demand calculation, as opposed to their intrinsic or use value.

    Of course, this imaginary system would probably be unstable in all kinds of ways; for example, nothing could cost more than the levelled income (putting a maximum price on all possible goods). Also, the system would be largely perverse, since the levelling of income would effectively disincentivise (or, rather, outlaw) savings, and grossly incentivize short-term spending. But despite being a perverse situation, it could still technically involve the setting of prices according to supply and demand — that’s not logically impossible.

  9. Benjamin,
    I think your response convinces me. I guess one can think of an isolated island with a more or less natural conservation of wealth in place.
    Thanks for the explanation.

  10. I agree with the initial premise that, you cannot begin to answer the question, until you are on the same page with its meaning.

    It would also appear to me that you almost always need a reference point to give meaning to value or wealth or happinesss etc. It is relative! situational, time bound and never infinite.

    Thus, depending on the meaning, yes and no could be both correct – yes every one could be wealthy – however in reality and evidentially, based on our current knowledge of this universe – relativism is critically important in measurements.

  11. Pod,

    I’m inclined to agree with you-the most intuitively appealing meaning of “wealthy” does seem to involve a relativity between those being compared.

  12. I don’t think the relative wealth you speak of captures all the important meanings of the term ‘wealth’. It can be used meaningfully in an absolute way. Imagine a society with infinite resources. Anything material anyone wants is granted to them instantly (by magic or whatever). Then it seems to me that such a society is rightfully called “wealthy” and all people there are rightfully called wealthy even though there are no real discrepancies in material well-being of everyone in that society, everyone gets what they want.

  13. NChen,

    I agree that my account of wealth is limited and rife with problems.

    In the case of your infinite wealth society, I am tempted to agree with you. After all, even if every member of society had the same effective wealth (infinite in this case) it would seem absurd to say that the members are not wealthy. However, I am also tempted to say that they are wealthy in a relative sense-that is, we would regard them as wealthy in comparison to those who have less.

  14. It is not necessary to actually have people of a different height, or wealth, in order to consider oneself tall, or wealthy, all that is required is the imagination that it might be otherwise.

    We generally consider that any increase in our wealth will make us wealthy but actually it simply sets a new baseline from which we need to rise from to consider ourselves wealthy. This can often be jarred into perspective by seeing someone obviously less wealthy than ourselves and we then realise the relative amount of wealth we have – this also works the other way when we see someone much wealthier and consider ourselves not wealthy, by comparison, hence the whole “keeping up with the Jones’s” idea.

  15. Keddaw,

    True-the comparison could be to a hypothetical being that is taller/shorter or wealthier/poorer (or we could use Plato’s forms as a basis for comparison-perhaps their is a form of Wealth).

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