What Causes Wealth (and Dishonesty and Greed)?
Religion & Liberty Online

What Causes Wealth (and Dishonesty and Greed)?

A recent national Pew Research Center survey has found conflicting opinions regarding many Americans’ view of the rich:

As Republicans gather for their national convention in Tampa to nominate a presidential candidate known, in part, as a wealthy businessman, a new nationwide Pew Research Center survey finds that many Americans believe the rich are different than other people. They are viewed as more intelligent and more hardworking but also greedier and less honest.

Nearly six-in-ten survey respondents (58%) also say the rich pay too little in taxes, while 26% say they pay their fair share, and just 8% say they pay too much. Even among those who describe themselves as upper or upper-middle class … 52% say upper-income Americans don’t pay enough in taxes.

In spite of these views, overwhelming majorities of self-described middle- and lower-class Americans say they admire people who get rich by working hard (92% and 84%, respectively).

Now, to be charitable, these statistics are not necessarily contradictory. We could conclude that people admire those who “get rich by working hard” but feel that, regrettably, many of the rich do not get there that way (though, according to the survey, 42% presume that the rich are more hard working than others).

However, one could take this another way. As Joe Carter recently pointed out, the “self described” middle class is quite large and poorly defined:

Ask the janitor sweeping your company’s floors and he’ll likely tell you he’s in ‘middle class.’ Query the vice-president of marketing and he will give you the same answer. The single girls down in accounts payable and the married attorneys in the legal department will give the same response. In the land of equal opportunity, it appears, we’re almost all middle class.

It seems that many people assume that they are part of the middle class and, simultaneously, assume that those above them got ahead of them through greed and dishonesty. I’m sure that, in fact, some people do find material success through greed and dishonesty, but this is hardly a charitable assumption of all the rich (or, as the case may be, of all those in a higher income bracket of any kind). Many inherit wealth and others really do work their way up. Given that this is the case, why not focus on leaving a better inheritance for our children and a legacy of hard work, rather than focusing on how much more others have than us and how they surely must have gotten “ahead” by dishonesty or greed?

Indeed, we must remember that, in general, people rise (or fall) to the standard that others set for them. If we expect the worst we will be likely to get it. Instead, we need a more charitable attitude that does not forget the good that business can and often does do (creating jobs, wealth, culture, etc.). As Rev. Robert Sirico writes,

The consequence of a divorce between the world of business and the world of faith would be disastrous in both arenas. For the world of business it would mean not acknowledging any values higher than expediency, profit, and utility, which would result in what has been described as bloody or savage capitalism….

If we are so dismayed by such results, let us not forget the causes.

Dylan Pahman

Dylan Pahman is a research fellow at the Acton Institute, where he serves as executive editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He earned his MTS in historical theology from Calvin Theological Seminary. In addition to his work as an editor, Dylan has authored several peer-reviewed articles, conference papers, essays, and one book: Foundations of a Free & Virtuous Society (Acton Institute, 2017). He has also lectured on a wide variety of topics, including Orthodox Christian social thought, the history of Christian monastic enterprise, the Reformed statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper, and academic publishing, among others.