Adequately Altruistic or Acquisitive

Among other difficulties with wealth redistribution programs is the problem that involves reaching agreement on the definitions of two adjectives: “enough” and “too much.” If we could achieve collective accord on what constitutes enough and how much is too much, the problem of wealth inequality might vaporize in an instant.

“Enough” is probably the easier term about which to come to agreement, although having “enough” to simply sustain life bears little resemblance to having “enough” to live comfortably. The definition of comfort, then, enters into the equation and, of course, the idea of what is comfortable seems to vary radically from person to person and place to place. I might insist that comfort must include a home whose ambient temperatures range between 68F and 78F, while someone else might be perfectly happy with 58F to 65F (and uncomfortable outside that range). And comfort can involve the degree to which one’s belly is full and one’s hunger sated.

Luxuries, too, begin to invade the territory of comfort. “Enough” whiskey for one man might mean an amount sufficient to deaden the pain of his sense of inadequacy, whereas “enough” for his wife might equate to the absence of its odor within thirty yards of the house in which she lives.

Obviously, I think, the problem of wealth redistribution rests squarely with a common human character trait: greed. But even greed is not subject to readily agreeable measures. When does “need” morph into “need” and when does desire blossom into full-formed greed? It depends on who you ask. The complex web of want and need and desire and willingness (or unwillngness) to sacrifice for the greater good creates an impossibly byzantine labyrinth. A willingness to share—to sacrifice a part of one’s own wealth so that others might enjoy a greater degree of comfort—is possible only when everyone is asked to do the same. But when is that the case? Individual greed or fear or envy can wreck the concept that “a rising tide raises all boats.”

I know I could keep my thermostat at a setting lower or higher than my “normal” and still be reasonably comfortable. If by doing so, I could be assured that someone else—someone who has been unable to achieve that level of comfort—could have an improved life, I might do it. But I’m likely to do it only if I believe I am not being asked to absorb the full weight of the sacrifice; others must do the same. And the same is true when considering the number of pots and pans in the kitchen, the number of beds in the house, the blankets available during the cold of winter, and the amount of food in my refrigerator. And whether I even have access to a refrigerator solely for my own use. If we all shared, we could all be happy. Or could we?

I don’t know. I honestly don’t know. I know many people who would, I think, give the clothes off their backs to help others. I know many others who wouldn’t give uneaten food off their plates to a starving child.

The answer, if there is one, would have to begin in infancy and continue through adulthood; we would all need to agree to teach what churches and temples and schools of philosophy have attempted to teach for eons. But it hasn’t worked so far, has it? If it had been sufficient, hunger and homelessness and unemployment and starvation would not be so prevalent.

I think about such matters all the time. Literally all the time. And that constant contemplation does nothing but drum into me the hopelessness that humanity will ever rise above its pitiful level of petty greed. But maybe, if enough people continue thinking about such stuff, eventually a solution will emerge out of the collective consciousness. Do I believe that? The answer depends on whether my mood is that of an optimist or a realist. I try not to be a pessimist; realism is sufficient for that.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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