Americans seem to be losing a lot of sleep these days trying to decide how they feel about rich people. It seems to me that both liberal and conservative reasoning gets a little tortuous on this point.
In the abstract liberals hate rich people, but in practice they seem to love them, particularly the uber-wealthy (Hollywood stars, George Soros, etc.) who bankroll their favored causes and political campaigns. Conservatives, for their part, say lots of nice things about the rich when we’re discussing taxes and wealth redistribution. On the other hand, whenever we move to the subject of family life, they are quick to pour accusations of greed and materialism on those who puzzle about how to secure a solid income without neglecting caretaking obligations.
I thought it might be interesting, therefore, to approach the question directly. What is the relationship between virtue and wealth? I suspect that there are some ways in which virtue correlates positively to wealth, and other ways in which it correlates negatively.
On the positive end, industry and creativity make it easier to achieve financial success. In general, one must exercise great discipline in order to become rich. Also, the ambitious will need to avoid certain obvious mistakes. Addiction, a messy divorce, or a brush with the law can easily derail the grandest and best-laid of plans. Prudent financial management helps enormously, too. In general, then, we will find that people who amass great wealth are capable, productive, disciplined and able to make sensible life choices.
Now, let’s look at the negative side. I think the plain fact is that generosity and self-sacrifice tend not to propel people to the top. If you want to become fabulously wealthy, you must avoid significant communal or caretaking duties. Don’t have children (or if you must, only have them with a person entirely willing to subordinate other interests to your career); don’t accept an important role within a church or other communal organization; don’t agree to be responsible for ageing parents or grandparents, or others who are sick or vulnerable. Be prepared to sacrifice friendship or other family ties to your career. Also, it probably does help to be a little unscrupulous, if you’re clever about it. Some may protest that honesty is the best policy, but I think the truth is that dishonesty can be quite an asset in temporal affairs, if judiciously and carefully applied. I’ve known more than one person whose potentially glamorous career was dashed on the rocks of too much integrity.
Conservatives love to believe that virtue is rewarded in the natural order of things. This is sometimes true, but frequently untrue, and I think it’s important that we not shy away from the fact that vice is often rewarded in our society, and virtue punished. Not every (socially and morally) healthy choice “pays off” in terms of temporal success, and this should concern us, because it affects people’s choices in a negative way. (Parenthood is the obvious example of something that is not incentivized in our current system, which nonetheless is vitally important to our society’s survival). I think, for the most part, that we cling to the axiom that “the righteous will prosper” as our best line of defense against calls for government intervention. But, of course, government intervention is not the only effective means to creating social change. I think we conservatives could potentially be more consistent in our values if we were more prepared to criticize the rich.