Some Moral Considerations of Wealth and Growth

Graph displaying sharp increase in world GDP over last couple centuries after two thousand years of no change.

The chart above estimates the per-capita GDP of the entire world over the last 2,000 years. There are all kinds of problems with estimating GDP over such a long time-horizon, but the only thing that matters for the purposes of this post is the general shape of the graph. At the time of Christ, there was essentially no growth in per-capita GDP. At our present moment in history—and going back to before the Industrial Revolution—there is very, very steep growth in per-capita GDP.

If you live at a time when there is essentially no growth (on a per-capita basis) then you live in a zero-sum world. Generally speaking, the only way to become wealthy in a world like that is to expropriate wealth from someone else. This is true based purely on the abstract math. If there are 100 people and $100 dollars, then for every person who has $2, there is at least one person who has less than $1.

Speaking concretely, the way to get wealthy in the Iron Age was to own more physical stuff, especially land. If you owned land, then you had control over the production from that land, either for crops or for grazing for herds. Since there is only a finite amount of land to go around, you get wealthy by owning more land than your neighbors.

If you live at a time where growth dominates, then you do no longer live in a zero-sum world. In such a world, it is possible to become rich without expropriating anything from anyone else. If there are 100 people and $100 dollars today, but next year there are a 100 people and $200 dollars, then if you have $4 it is no longer necessarily the case that you got your extra $1 at the expense of someone else. That’s the simplified math.

Speaking concretely, wealth in the 21st century is no longer fixed exclusively to land. Other sources include tangible capital that can be manufactured (like robots for building things) and intangible capital that can also be created (like inventions). If you go into your garage and invent something—say, a new mobile system that is superior to iOS and Android—and become fabulously wealthy from selling it, this is a fundamentally different new method for attaining wealth. You literally created value. The idea of wealth creation is the reason that we live in a period of economic growth. When the only capital that really matters is land, there is no way to create new capital (short of exploring other planets). When capital includes things like robots and software, then new capital can be created and used to increase output. This is how GDP (per-capita) increases, and it’s why economic growth and technological growth happened at the same time. The economic growth and scientific progress of the Industrial Revolution are two facets to the same phenomena and are inseparable from each other.

This has pretty clear implications for how we understand scriptural teachings about wealth. Ancient scripture—the Old and New Testaments, Pearl of Great Price, and Book of Mormon—were written in a period of zero economic growth. At this point in time, it was all but a logical certainty that any wealthy individual got their wealth by expropriating it from other people. The connection between immorality in this context is immediate and visceral. If you have more, it’s because you took more. (Or your parents did.) There are some exceptions to this case at the individual level, but generally speaking wealth in a zero-sum scenario is inseparable from deprivation. It is a mistake to naively extrapolate from ancient injunctions against wealth to a modern context.

However, let’s not get carried away here. The fact that it is possible to accumulate wealth in a positive-growth scenario by creating it rather than expropriating it cannot serve as a universal detergent for wealth-laundering. While it’s possible to create wealth by investing or inventing, it’s still often easier and faster to get rich at someone else’s expense. Expropriation happens in the 21st century just as it did in the 1st.

Moreover, modern scripture originating well after the transition from zero-sum scenarios emphatically states that the mere fact of inequality itself—and not only the immoral means by which that inequality came about—is worthy of condemnation. The 49th section of the Doctrine and Covenants was received in 1831—well into the high-growth phase of global history—and states flatly that “it is not given that one man should possess that which is above another, wherefore the world lieth in sin.”

So, we cannot let the wealthy off the hook entirely. It is certainly the case that wealth in a zero-sum scenario is worse than wealth in a growth-scenario because it is immoral on at least two fronts. First, because the fact of inequality is sign of immorality no matter how that inequality arose, and second, because in order to gain wealth in a zero-sum scenario you have to take it away from someone else. In the context of rapid economic growth, only the first of these is guaranteed to apply (although on a case-by-case basis, the second might apply as well.)

There is one final consideration, which is this: be careful in your condemnation of the wealthy if you haven’t considered your own relative wealth. There is rank hypocrisy in American complaints of economic disparity between rich and poor Americans when even poor Americans are very, very wealthy in international terms.

Since God is no respecter of persons, we have no excuse to simply pretend that the world beyond our own borders doesn’t exist when we discuss inequality. The 2019 Federal Poverty Level for a family of 4 is $25,100. I plugged that into a convenient little tool the Washington Post put out and found that it puts you in the 10th percentile in the United States (meaning 90% of Americans households of 4 earn more than you), but it puts you in the 69th percentile globally (meaning that you make more than 69% of the world’s population for 4-person households).

So, before you point fingers at “the rich” consider that—if you’re reading this post—chances are you’re one of them.

24 comments for “Some Moral Considerations of Wealth and Growth

  1. Good points. One thing I’d add is that the wealth distribution looks different from the income distribution. The degree of inequality in wealth is much higher, and there’s a large group of people who are near the zero line or below it because of debt. An American with no assets and $150,000 in consumer debt (there are plenty of people in this situation) might well be among the poorest people in the world by net worth, even if he makes $40,000 a year.

  2. While land for agriculture is no longer a way for wealth to concentrate, land for housing or business buildings does allow wealth to accumulate to the few. I think that was one of the element of Piketty’s argument most agreed upon.

    However as you note, the real issue is wealth concentration on a worldwide basis. The problem there though is often that the political and structural issues in a country make it difficult to solve. We might all agree that say Russian oligarch and corruption accumulating insane levels of wealth is deeply immoral. What to do about that or similar situations in China isn’t at all clear. While the US is far from what I’d call an ethical level of equality, we pale compared to the world as a whole.

    I’d add that I think you leave out an important element in your discussion. While even most poor Americans are wealthy compared to most of the world, the issue ends up being what one catastrophe will do to them. It’s that element of risk for unemployment or sickness that I think is where the American poor’s position isn’t well captured by their consumer goods.

  3. You must be terribly out of touch with those that struggle to live a healthy and prosperous life as a family of four at $25,000 per year. A global rationale is totally irrelevant when one lives within an American or Canadian context. There is no ‘balm of gilead’ knowing that you are potentially part of the global 1% when your family struggles every day with no dental care, perhaps very limited health care and lentils…or often empty carbs many nights for dinner. Volunteer with those in this position and you will understand the struggle more accurately.

  4. There is an inference in the post that growth is going strong in most economies at present. Most economies like USA are close to stagnant. There is also the message that now we can have wealth without it being at someone elses expense.
    Certainly not in US where in 1980 the top 1% got 10% of the income they now get 20% and the bottom 50% share went from over 20% in 1980 to less than 13% now. This kind of increase in inequality also happened in Russia, China and India, but not in the regulated economies of Western Europe, Australia NZ etc. Poverty rates have doubled in US to 18% while other developed countries can have poverty as low as 5.5% Denmark and Finland

    With Trumps tax cuts for the rich this will get worse.

    It is a moral problem that wealth and income is being redistributed to the wealthy from the poor. It is the opposite of what Christ taught. Voting for republicans who believe in trickle down economics and redistributing to the wealthy is immoral. The fact they also deny social responsibility for things like climate change is also immoral/irresponsible.

    That most Utah mormons vote Republican makes me question what their understanding of Christ, and morality mean.

  5. Geoff tips the conversation off balance by bringing up Trump unnecessarily. Trump is deeply regrettable but in the big picture he is temporary. Increased economic disparity in the US didn’t begin with Trump, and won’t easily end when he is gone. Geoff also ignores the fact that if Democrats were not so religiously in favor of taking the lives of unborn children (and even newly born these days), Utah Mormons would not vote so predominantly Republican, reflecting a very Christ-like understanding of morality.

  6. rcf, Lets say there could be 10% less of the population in poverty. Thats 30 million people. If America had the same rate as other developed countries 30 million less Americans would live in poverty.

    Abortion has been legal since 1973. Was Nixon president in 1973 when roevwade happened. No Republican government has changed that in 26 years. You are telling me that people vote Republican even though republicans have been in power for 26 years since 73 but done nothing, and that a republican was in power when it was legalised.. You might also be aware the rate of abortion is reducing, and that when democrats are in they fund sex education, and womens health, and that the number of abortions reduces when democrats are in. There are fewer abortions when democrats are in but republicans say they want none but don’t deliver.

    The moral choice on abortion would seem to be democrats. Less abortions.

    Not sure the excuse for voting to make 30 million americans live in poverty is a moral choice against nothing that makes sense on reducing abortion. That is your argument, isn’t it?

    I did say Trumps tax bill would make things worse, but the figures I quoted were before Trump. The problem is Americas obcession with unregulated capitalism. Unregulated greed.

    I believe that is a moral problem to have 30 million extra people live in poverty.

    I also think it is a moral problem that members vote republican which contributes to this poverty but also more abortions than if they voted democrat.

  7. While this is an interesting point relevant to a policy discussion on helping the poor, I find it largely unconvincing as a moral argument on helping the poor. The timing of the admonitions to help the poor seem irrelevant because concern for your neighbor isn’t dependent on the manner in which you obtained your wealth. The scriptures, ancient and modern, make it clear that we are not to blame the poor for their position or ask how they got there. We are simply to help them.

    Now, I don’t find a clear dictate in scripture on the best way to do that. Via government or via private means both seem like morally and religiously valid means to me. It is a policy decision that we’ve worked out via the political sphere. Since the Church has largely been American for most of the Restoration period, most of its leaders have had idiosyncratically American views on poor-relief. I’m curious what any non-American members – who have actually experienced a more government driven approach to poor relief – have to say on the topic.

  8. Deborah,

    I don’t think Nathaniel is trying to minimize the struggles of the North American poor, but to contextualize it. Not having dental care is a real struggle, but there is a sizable global population for whom going to the dentist is a luxury so far beyond their means that they don’t even think about it. Having few healthy food options is a tough situation, but consider that many of the global poor risk starvation for lack of any food at all. I don’t think he’s out of touch with the North American poor; just better in touch with the global poor, who would envy (and do envy) those who live in industrialized countries with what the government considers poverty incomes.

  9. As for the Republicans vs. Democrats: the Republican political class cares about abortions about as much as the Democratic political class actually care about helping the poor. It’s a useful issue to fire up their base and get voters to stay loyal, but they don’t care enough to acually look at the data and figure out how to solve the problem. I think our discussion here would be better served talking about policies and moral demands.

  10. Geoff-Aus,

    Inequality and GDP are not the same thing, but you seem to be equating them. Further, the absolute condition of the poor is not directly tied to inequality. For example, Ukraine is by some measures the most economically equal country in the world, and yet they have a major poverty problem. Studies have shown that inequality often stunts economic growth, but that’s an indirect relationship.

    I’m also not sure where Global Finance (an outlet I’ve never heard of) gets their numbers, but the US Census Bureau puts the current poverty rate at 12.3%, which has been decreasing for the last several years.

    I’m not particularly interested in a partisan discussion, but I do want to point out that you appear to be willing to talk in absolute numbers about abortion, but not about wealth. Over the past 40 years, overall wealth has increased and abortions have decreased, but to attribute either to Republicans or Democrats is to play with the numbers. What is indisputable is that abortions increased dramatically in 1973 and have been falling since then. I also don’t think that you understand abortion policy in the United States. Even if Republicans hold control of both houses of Congress and the White House, they can’t change abortion policy because of a Supreme Court decision declaring access to abortion to be a Constitutional right (despite there being no language in our written constitution even hinting at such). In order to reverse policy, the Supreme Court has to overturn its prior decision, which is difficult because of life-time appointments.

  11. This is naive in the extreme. “There is rank hypocrisy in American complaints of economic disparity between rich and poor Americans when even poor Americans are very, very wealthy in international terms.” Everything is relative, and trying to live in a modern society on $25,000 per year is nearly impossible. The fact that the top 3 wealthy Americans now own as much wealth as the bottom 50 percent shows the pure evil of the corporate capitalist model. To paraphrase William Greider, the problem with capitalism isn’t that people can own capital, as Marx supposed. It is that not enough people own capital. When business owners and executives treat their employees as commodities and human resources, rather than as agents who play an important role in producing the wealth the business creates, that wealth gets redistributed from the bottom to the top. Workers don’t get a fair share of the profit they produce. And if they increase productivity, the gains go mostly to someone else. And now we have Republicans doing everything they can to reduce taxes on the donor class and on corporations. The result of this top-heavy approach to economics is that we have far too many at the bottom who either suffer needless deprivation (of food, health care, shelter, you name it) or must rely on social assistance from government to stay afloat. Republicans are so dismissive of “entitlements” and want to cut them drastically, but at the same time they embrace economic principles that put more people in a position where they cannot survive in our expensive modern society without that assistance. That is rank hypocrisy.

  12. Tyler Cowen of Marginal Revolution fame made the case yesterday in a Bloomberg column that Genesis is a story of economic growth:
    “Adam and Eve eat of “the tree of knowledge, good and evil,” and from that decision an entire series of economic forces are set in motion. Soon thereafter Adam and Eve are tilling the soil, and in their lineage is Tubal-Cain, ‘who forged every tool of copper and iron.’ Living standards rise throughout the book, and by the end we see the marvels of Egyptian civilization, as experienced and advised by Joseph.” “Most of all, in the Genesis story, the population of the Middle East keeps growing. I’ve known readers who roll their eyes at the lists of names, and the numerous recitations of who begat whom, but that’s the Bible’s way of telling us that progress is underway.”

  13. The main point seems to be that accumulating wealth was harder in ancient times than in modern times, which is true, and that the folks who wrote the Bible condemned wealth because they were generally poor or associated with poor folks, such as Jesus, and they perceived the wealthy to be the powerful who essentially stole their wealth through expropriation. In modern times, the wealthy aren’t in need of the condemnation that the scriptures deal to them since many didn’t create their wealth through force but by ingenuity and trade.

    The OP is generally right. Some things could be tweaked. People have mainly taken issue with the idea that who we consider poor could be considered wealthy relative to the poorest in Somalia. I think those critiques make some good points. Yet, we have to bear in mind too that expectations have increased over time as well. We now expect to live into our 70s and 80s. 150 years ago, about anywhere in the world, you were living long if you made it to your 50s. Now everyone expects to have a cell phone and a car (in many ways these are now necessities). People expect to travel and do and own more things. 150 years ago, most folks didn’t travel too far from where they were born. They lived on significantly less and they expected less too. Interestingly today in the US, poor whites tend to be less satisfied with life than poor blacks, even though the former are more likely to have more opportunity and an overall better quality of life than the latter. Blacks in the US simply expect less from life and are more satisfied with what progress has been made for them given their backgrounds than poor whites, who tend to compare themselves to other whites.

    I will point out that while wealth in ancient times was tied to land for the most part, it was also tied to trade. Merchants didn’t necessarily acquire wealth through direct land ownership, but by negotiation and trade of goods. Artisans and craftsmen as well didn’t necessarily acquire wealth through land ownership, but through particular skills in making things.

    Also, in ancient times, as in modern times, expropriation wasn’t all bad. Some peoples preferred the dominance of one empire to another, and preferred their economic systems to those of others. Ancient Hebrews hated the Assyrians and Babylonians who took the Hebrews’ land and drove them from it, but far preferred the Achaemenid Persians, who grew to be far more powerful and large than the Assyrians or Babylonians ever reached in power, who treated the Hebrews more kindly and allowed for a greater diversity to thrive under their realm.

  14. While I can’t speak for Nathaniel I think his point isn’t that wealth was harder to accumulate so much that what we call poor is wealthy beyond belief compared to the typical person in 1st century ANE. Then, especially because of Roman policy of appropriating land, many Palestinians (including possibly Jesus) were in abject poverty one illness or bad crop away from starvation. Now that picture of the 1st century is actually a bit more controversial than it seems. Some argue that because of Roman and Herodian building projects there was peace and relative prosperity especially compared to prior pre-Ptolemy periods. However the truth is that even up to the 18th century poverty meant near death as a practical matter.

    What I think Nathaniel is getting at is that even today what gets called poverty in the rich west really isn’t when compared to many parts of Africa or Asia. Our poor have opportunities beyond many people’s dreams, programs to help them such as medicaid, and many consumer goods. Where, as I said, Nathaniel is perhaps leaving things out is how easy it is to lose everything even for the “rich” poor. Yes they won’t be near starvation, but that doesn’t mean it’s not bad.

    I’m not sure Nathaniel would disagree that our expectations are now higher. However speaking only for myself, I think we should look at where we’ve come from and have some gratitude. Many in the world would love to take the place of someone considered “poor” in the United States, Canada, or Germany.

  15. While I can’t speak for Nathaniel I think his point isn’t that wealth was harder to accumulate so much that what we call poor is wealthy beyond belief compared to the typical person in 1st century ANE.

    Not quite.

    It’s really two, distinct points.

    The first point is that if you live in a zero-sum world then the only way to explain inequality is through expropriation. I tried to use an example, but I think it wasn’t as clear as I’d hoped.

    If there’s no growth that means that every year there is the same amount of stuff. So, in 15 AD you’ve got 100 people who produce $100 worth of stuff. And in 16 AD you’ve got that same 100 people and they are producing the same $100 worth of stuff. Now, if the stuff is divided equally, then everyone has $1 income every year, right? 100 people each get $1 and that accounts for the total production that year.

    Now, imagine that you come back in 17 AD and somebody earned $2. Since the overall output didn’t change (it’s still 100 people and there’s still only $100 worth of stuff) you know that the extra dollar that guy has came from someone else. This is a mathematical certainty. It might have come from just one person. The rich guy might literally have clubbed some other guy over the head and then taken his $1. Or it might have come from more than one person. Maybe he intimidated 10 different people, and they each gave him $0.10. So now he has $2 and they all have $0.90. The details aren’t important, the central point is that if there is no growth then, in that situation, the only way to get ahead is to take from someone else.

    Thus, if you’re talking about the time of Christ, being extremely suspicious of the rich made sense. Because every dollar they had more than the average is a dollar that came from someone else. It had do.

    Contrast that with the situation we have today. in 2015 AD you might have $100 for 100 people, but in 2016 you have $105 for 100 people and in 2017 you have $110 for 100 people. So you can imagine visiting in 2015 and the money is distributed equitably. Each of the 100 people has $1. And then you come back in 2016 and one guy is super rich. He’s got $6. That’s way more than anyone else! But, unlike in the zero-growth scenario, you can’t assume that this guy took his extra money from the other folks. That’s because there are $5 new dollars. They came from innovation. They came because somebody invented something cool, and so now there’s more stuff. Maybe this rich guy is a thief. Maybe he clubbed 5 guys over the head and stole $1 from each. But maybe he’s not. Maybe he’s the one who invented the cool new thing that allowed that group of 100 people to produce $105 worth of stuff instead of just $100. Whether or not he deserves the $5 is up for debate in that context, but it’s clearly a different moral proposition if he invented a way to generate $5 new dollars vs. expropriating it from someone else.

    So this is all I’m trying to say in the first point. And it’s very vague. I’m conflating wealth and income, for one thing. I’m ignoring a lot of complexity. But I’m trying to focus on this one, central fact: if there’s a constant amount of stuff year-over-year and somebody has more of it, their excess is equivalent to someone else’s deprivation. Wealth, in the time of Christ, was all but equivalent to oppression. They were basically inseparable. That proposition does not hold when there’s economic growth. Because if the size of the pie is growing, then someone having a larger pie no longer means that they necessarily stole from someone else’s slice. Maybe they did! Growth does not automatically exonerate the rich. But it does significantly erode the reliability of the assumption that rich people are thieves. You could more or less draw that conclusion during the Iron Age. You can’t justify the same equivalence since the Industrial Revolution.

    The second point is much simpler: poor people in the United States are still affluent relative to both global and historical standards. This should be much easier to understand, and I’m not going to apologize to folks like Deborah for pointing out the obvious truth. She thinks I’m out of touch with Americans making $25k and supporting a family. Well, she’s out of touch with Indians making the equivalent of $1k and supporting a family of 4. In what bizzaro universe is she a saint for empathizing with poor Americans and I’m a heartless monster for empathizing with much poorer people who happen to be from somewhere other than America?

    What we have is a situation where the global 1% are all obsessed with income inequality amongst themselves and if you point out that they’re all better off than the other 99% they will act like you are the one with a moral blindspot! It’s complete madness.

    And look, I have limited sympathy for the, “But we feel poor because of our context!” line of reasoning. It’s certainly true, speaking in terms of objective human psychology, but it’s also a nice way of saying, “Well, they might have to deal with the hardship of watching their children die from lack of medical care, but that doesn’t feel too bad because all their neighbor’s kids are dying, too. Whereas I have the hardship of not being able to afford to go on vacation like my coworkers, and that’s really painful!”

    Cry me a river, folks. I am not going to apologize for prioritizing measures of objective poverty–like access to clean water or adequate daily calories–over relative, social poverty.

  16. Nathaniel, I understand what you are saying, I just think you are wrong. Since the GFC inflation has not risen above 2.1% and GDP was 2.3%, but the average wage rose by 0.3% and the average CEO wage rose by 17.6%
    To me supporting that kind of abuse is immoral.

    Obviously the poor in undeveloped countries have less income, but may be able to live on that income. It is good that you prioritise those. How exactly do you prioritise them? Do you support foreign aid? Do you welcome them at the border? Do you vote for parties in government that will do these things?

    In reality there we are more responsible for the kind of society we have in our own country, and particularly how wealth is distributed. As I showed upstream between 1980 and 2016 America created millions of poor by directing the wealth to those who already have too much. That is in direct opposition to Christ teaching, and just morally wrong. Greed is not good it is immoral. Can you recommend a way to change this?

  17. Nathaniel- You said “Cry me a river, folks. I am not going to apologize for prioritizing measures of objective poverty–like access to clean water or adequate daily calories–over relative, social poverty.”

    However, there are quite a few poor people in this country that do not have access to clean water (Flint, anyone?), and/or do not have access to adequate daily calories. The last estimate I saw was that one in six Americans struggles with getting adequate daily calories. It doesn’t really matter if that is a lack of access or a lack of funds, that’s still way too high for a country that is much wealthier, relatively, than many parts of the world.

    In any case, other than donations here and there, there is nothing I can do to improve policies, etc., in other countries. I only have the influence of my vote and my voice where I live. I have to worry about what I have any chance to change before I worry about the things I cannot influence at all.

  18. Nathaniel,

    I think this discussion would be more useful if we focused on the moral demands of our assumptions. If Nathaniel is right and today’s rich are less morally blameworthy than the rich in the past, what does that mean? In addition, if the poor in rich countries are better off than the poor in the rest of the world, what does that require of us?

    The scriptures certainly contain condemnation of the wealthy, such as Matt. 19:23-26. But I think the list of scriptures under the
    “Riches” in the Guide to the Scriptures ( makes it clear that how we obtain riches isn’t the important point. What matters is our intent. Are our hearts set on riches or are they set on God and our fellow man? A rich man can be saved if he loves God and loves his fellow man. This implies both that he will obtain wealth in moral ways and that he will help the poor.

    I think it was very possible to obtain wealth in the ancient world in moral ways. It was not a zero-sum game. The scale of the graph (as well as lack of solid data) in the post hides the ups and downs in GDP in the past. Disasters, wars, migrations, and relatively modest improvements in technology and institutions led to economic growth as the productivity and population of various lands changed. For example, despite the fact that the Jaredites had settled the Book of Mormon lands, their wars and the resulting disappearance of their civilization meant that the children of Lehi could approach their land as if it was a virgin land. They didn’t just take from existing inhabitants, but created wealth by settling unsettled lands. Thus, the rich in their society are not condemned by Jacob for how they obtained their wealth, but for how they set their hearts on wealth instead of their neighbor. Jacob 2:18-19.

    So, if we need to love our neighbor by materially assisting him, who is our neighbor? Is it the family of four making only $25k or is it the starving Indian family that lost everything they have in a flood? The subtext of Nathaniel’s post is that we should focus on the poorest on a worldwide level. The poorest in America are doing fine and should be grateful for what they have. Please correct me if I’m misinterpreting this.

    I don’t think scripture, modern prophetic teaching, or Church practices support this. Fast offerings are applied on a local level first before they are used at broader levels. Bishops in the U.S. and other wealthy countries provide a great deal of resources to members here, despite the many much poorer members around the world. We do this because one purpose of the Church is to foster unity and help provide for the needs and wants of each other.

    Perhaps this is wrong. Maybe those funds should help the poorest on a worldwide level before they help the relatively better off. What would be the result?

  19. Stephen-

    If Nathaniel is right and today’s rich are less morally blameworthy than the rich in the past, what does that mean??

    That’s not quite what I’m saying. What I’m saying is closer to this: in a no-growth economy, the connection between wealth and expropriation is very, very strong. Less than absolute, but close to it. The only way to have more in that scenario is to take from someone else. There are some exceptions to that (as you mentioned: disasters, wars, etc.) but in general if there is no economic growth having more than the people around you is inseparable from depriving them. If you are right, it’s because you have 1,000 acres. And by possessing those acres, you’re depriving them of having the acres. That’s how physical capital–especially land–works.

    In a growth economy, the connection between wealth and expropriation is much, much weaker. Instead of deriving your riches from 1,000 acres, you could (for example) derive your wealth from 1,000 patents. Unlike land, people can always make more patents. So your ownership of 1,000 patents isn’t a form of deprivation in the same way that your ownership of 1,000 acres would be. That’s how non-physical capital–patents, copyrights, etc.–work.

    The economic growth since the Industrial Revolution is inseparable from the addition of non-physical capital (e.g. information) to the economy. So the idea of growth and the idea of non-physical capital go hand-in-hand.

    This means it is possible to be rich in the 21st century without objectively harming anyone else.

    This doesn’t automatically mean that being rich is OK now. First, just because it’s possible to get rich without expropriating scarce resources doesn’t mean that’s the route that everyone takes. Plenty of wealthy people today either expropriate or are enjoying the fruits of expropriation that their parents or grandparents conducted.

    Secondly, there are other moral dimensions. The D&C says that the mere fact of inequality means that the whole world lies in sin. It’s possible that having more than your neighbors is, itself, sinful even if you’re riches didn’t come from them.

    The subtext of Nathaniel’s post is that we should focus on the poorest on a worldwide level. The poorest in America are doing fine and should be grateful for what they have. Please correct me if I’m misinterpreting this.

    Again, close, but not quite.

    The main argument I’m making says something like: rich people in Rome got their riches through theft, and so were obviously immoral based on an appeal to theft. That no longer applies (or at least doesn’t apply as strongly.)

    I knew when I made that argument that some folks would come back with, “But maybe inequality is wrong per se and not because of theft.”

    And so my point is: sure, maybe you’re right. But if that’s true–if inequality is itself immoral–then don’t get to move the goal posts until you’re the one that’s poor and then declare victory. If inequality is a sin then it must apply globally for the simple reason that all people are equally morally important. So, if you want to say “Being rich is still evil, because inequality is fundamentally evil” then, sure. But if you live by that sword, you’re going to die by that sword. Because anybody making that argument in English on the Internet is highly likely to be among the rich, globally speaking.

    The deeper question you want to address–where should we spend our scarce resources when we fight poverty?–is a separate one that I didn’t address in my post.

  20. Geoff-AUS

    I’ll set aside your main contention because I just don’t think that citing specific inflation numbers for the past year or two is the same category as talking about the theoretical implications of zero-growth vs growth contexts.

    As for this:

    Obviously the poor in undeveloped countries have less income, but may be able to live on that income. It is good that you prioritise those. How exactly do you prioritise them? Do you support foreign aid? Do you welcome them at the border? Do you vote for parties in government that will do these things?

    Walker Wright and I wrote an entire paper about this. The tl;dr is that we are in the midst of the greatest mass elevation of humanity out of poverty the world has ever seen, and that it is due primarily to free trade and markets. I applaud and support policies that will allow this global equalization to continue. The staggering reduction in objective poverty is one of the most important stories of the 21st century and maybe even of the modern era.

  21. KH-

    However, there are quite a few poor people in this country

    I do not want to be too harsh, but I do want to be emphatically clear: abject poverty that is common world-wide does not exist in the United States.

    That doesn’t mean everyone has it fine. I’m not denying anything you’re saying–like the Flint scandal–but I am doubling down on the basic fact that truly abject poverty does not exist in the United States. Or Europe. Or Japan. Or anywhere in the developed world.

    Just as a simple example: no matter how poor you are in the United States, if your child is hit by a car you can take him or her to an emergency room and get world-class medical treatment. It might very well bankrupt you. They might save your kid’s life, but then you’re left with no way to pay for ongoing treatment of a chronic injury. I’m not saying everything is fine and we have no problem. There are huge problems!

    But if you life in [insert developing nation] and your child gets hit by a car, you don’t even have that option of emergency care at all. As bad as it is to be poor in the US–and it is very, very bad–it is not in the same ballpark as being poor on a global scale. That’s just a specific example of the general fact that the developed world has a lot of “fringe benefits” that you get access to if you live there even if you can’t afford them. Stuff like the absence of malaria and the presence of public libraries–not to mention social safety nets like Medicaid–and basics like electricity and running water are all things that, to a greater or lesser extent, the poor in the developed world have and the global poor don’t.

  22. A few (nit-picky) points of disagreement:

    1. Clearly the chart is not “per capita” (there’s no way we each consume $100 trillion 2011 dollars per year). A per capita graph would essentially have the same shape.

    2. The massive increase in consumption didn’t really pick up steam until the 19th century (the hay-day of free trade), so I wouldn’t say 1831 was “well into” the growth spurt. (See McCloskey’s Bourgeois Virtues trilogy for an extended and very readable treatment on the subject.) Which is why so much of it is (in my opinion) not so conducive to free trade with “outsiders”. (I happen to think this played a significant role in the WoW:

    Those small point acknowledged, Nathaniel’s post is spot on. Markets and free trade have brought more people out of poverty than all other solutions combined. It hasn’t brought everybody out, and those that have been brought out have not done so equally, but the point still stands.

    Some people think that just because some people’s income has only increased 10 fold (compared to 200 years ago) rather than the worldwide average of 30 fold (yes, 30 freaking fold!), free trade must somehow be the problem. People who think this are inexcusably ignorant.

    People in Flint who drive cars and smartphones but choose prioritize these (and other such goods) for cleaner drinking water are obviously wealthier than the average worker was 200 years ago. Its not even close. (Again, see McCloskey)

    Again, the point is not that shouldn’t care for those less fortunate around us today, nor is it that free trade is equally beneficial or perfect by any means. The point is that free trade has radically changed our material world and clearly for the better. This really shouldn’t be a controversial claim.

  23. Post thought,

    I think the biggest difficult with the issue is that our desires (and “standards” of living) seem to have grown faster than our ability to satisfy those desires. Stated differently, the ratio of “met wants” to “unmet wants” has probably gone down over the last 200 years simply because we are drowning in so many more perceived opportunities than they did.

    In other words, I think dissatisfaction (unmet wants) has grown faster than satisfaction (met wants) – which have themselves incrased 30 fold – and this is a large source for all the chronic grieving about the how bad things are supposed to be.

  24. I am not concerned with how rich the rich are. I have no envy of their wealth. Moralizing about their possible moral shortcomings or possible ethical failings in obtaining their wealth is not going to hurt them in the least. They just do not care, or the most part, how what others think of them. Nor is it going to help the poor climb out of poverty. The best way to help the poor is through education, job training in skills that are in demand, and policies that encourage strong families. Getting married before having children, getting and education, and having a father and a mother in the home are three of the best predictors of being able to successfully climb out of poverty.

    People that are raised in a nuclear family and who graduate from high school school may not, on average, attain a much higher standard of living than their parents, but a person that is raised in poverty but gets an education, and does not have children out of wedlock will just about always enjoy a much better living standard than the parents.

    Those are simply stated ideas, but implementing them is something that will take a concerted effort by people from all walks life, race, ethnic/cultural backgrounds, and political persuasions to agree on those principles and help those in poverty overcome the main obstacles keeping them there.


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