in defense of wealth

A few years ago, I was asked to give a talk at the annual meeting of the historical and comparative section of the ASA. The topic was “how can historical sociologists save the world?” On one level, I think it was a humorous topic. Historians, and their friends in the social sciences, usually don’t produce the kind work that allows you save the world. On the other hand, the study of society and history offers valuable and deep lessons.

After getting the invitation, I considered the issue carefully. I settled upon the view that I should (a) focus on one big lesson from history and (b) our role as educators. What’s the lesson? Here it is: wealth is usually a precondition to the things that people find valuable: health, human rights, democracy, education, culture. women’s rights, civil rights, and so forth. And it’s usually not the other way around. Poor nations (usually) don’t becoem strongholds of diversity and human rights. Also, once societies reach a certain level of wealth, they tend to be relatively stable (e.g., few violent revolutions in industrialized nations). What is the role of the educator? As historical researchers, we can communicate the importance of what McCloskey calls “bourgeois vitrue” – the idea that it is ok to create and retain wealth. We, as social scientists and educators, can be a force for developing a culture of material well being that supports other virtues that we may care about.

It’s been a few years, but my memory is that people seemed put back by this argument. It is easy to see why. Sociologists often cast themselves as critics of plutocracy and privilege. And I concur in one way and diverge in another. I agree that the wealthy do unfairly exercise influence in politics. But this leads me to a critique of politics, not a critique of wealth per se.

But let’s say that the typical sociologist is right and that wealth by itself is a problem. Then you’d still probably want to sing the praises of wealth. Why? The problems of wealth usually pale in comparison to the problems that people face everyday in non-industrialized nations. Ask the person without clean water, or the person stuck in a famine, or in a Sryian refugee camp. if they prefer to live in a nation where people worry about whether Mark Zuckerberg has too much access to their Facebook account.

Bottom line: Wealth is simply a word for “we have lots of stuff” and when people have lots of stuff, they tend to built better societies. So we should cheer on the making of lots of good stuff!


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Written by fabiorojas

November 12, 2018 at 5:20 am

Posted in uncategorized

3 Responses

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  1. “They tend to build better societies?” Congress is FULL of millionaires. Where is the better society?



    November 12, 2018 at 3:50 pm

  2. I would say that contemporary sociologists tend to be much more concerned with the unequal distribution of wealth than with problems that might be caused by having too much of it. I don’t think that the accumulation of (for example) natural resource wealth by a tiny elite would bring any of the positive benefits you mention.



    November 12, 2018 at 6:04 pm

  3. If you are not sure that greater wealth is better, ask your students to go back to the poorer mid-twentieth century. Ask them to give up their expensive cell phones and live in an age when, for most Americans, media consisted of three network television channels and a once-a-week change of program at the movie theater. Note that the infrastructure of communication and travel is one example of progress that helps everyone.


    John Holley

    November 12, 2018 at 9:11 pm

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