What is wealth?

Photo: Spudgun67, Creative Commons

Photo: Spudgun67, Creative Commons

“There is no wealth but life. Life, including all its powers of love, joy, and of admiration” (John Ruskin, in Unto this Life)

To be wealthy is to have a vast amount of money, isn’t it? So isn’t wealth just money? No. Money has no value in itself, and it is only useful as a means to an end. Money is just a claim on those kinds of wealth that happen to be for sale.

‘Wealth’ refers to whatever enables us to live and to live well. Most prosaically it includes goods and services. Some of these are provided without payment – most domestic labour, for example, or the food gardeners grow for their own use. Even though we don’t pay money for them, their products are a form of wealth. We should include nature’s bounties too – from clean water and sunlight, to fertile soil and all the plants, fishes and animals that grow themselves, but which we can use, often with little effort. Our own bodies are a form of wealth; our health is our wealth. And wealth includes some non-economic things, like being loved, which of course can’t be bought. We shouldn’t dismiss Ruskin’s claim as merely poetic or fanciful.

Aristotle saw the pursuit of money as an end in itself as a form of madness.

Photo: Democracy Chronicles, Creative Commons

Photo: Democracy Chronicles, Creative Commons

But what was an exception 2,300 years ago has become widely taken for granted today, for under capitalism, the pursuit of money profits has to be the goal for capitalists if they want to survive in competition with others; if they’re not successful in this they go out of business. Whatever they may say about wanting to put their customers first or wanting to bring their product to the world, they ignore this imperative at their peril. For the rest of us, money is of course necessary as a means to an end, for getting the goods and services that we need, but it’s easy to slip into treating the pursuit of money itself as our main goal.

So who are the wealth creators?

Realising this is essential if we are to explode the myth of wealth creation as the preserve of the rich.  Everyone who contributes to the production and distribution of goods and services – in a broad sense – whether for sale or not, is a wealth creator. If you’re teaching a child to read, or looking after an old person, you’re creating wealth – even though you may not get paid for it.

What about the rich, then? As any get-rich-quick book will tell you, the way to become rich is not merely – or even – to work hard, but to get control of assets that others need but lack, so that you can charge them for their use, thus providing you with unearned income. You can get a lot of money – claims on wealth produced by others – without creating much wealth yourself, if you control some key assets, including money itself. The way to become rich is to become a wealth extractor! 2014-09-24 15.41.59

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