Why “Accumulating Wealth” is Wrong

Last week I went to a humanist event on Human Rights. There were two speakers exploring the topic of whether human rights are universal or not. One of them was a young sociologist who argued for a relativist position. While he said that he liked the idea that human rights could be applied everywhere, he thought that this was not possible as long as social conditions vary in different places. During his speech, it quickly became clear that he was a hardcore communist. He did not really talk a lot about human rights as individual rights at all. Instead, all he was talking about was how social conditions needed to be changed in order to produce some greater good. That means, to him it was all about the collective having rights rather than the individual person. Therefore, he thought that rights cannot be universal, they need to be adapted according to the condition that the local collective is in. At one point, he literally said that the idea of universal human rights can be in the way of social progress. I almost fell off my chair when I heard that. Yes mate, you have to break some eggs to make an omelet, right?

Of course he was not defending the communist regimes of the past. These people know that that would make them look silly. And no doubt, he thought of himself as a good human being, fighting for the right cause. Although he had just laid out the totalitarian nature of the communist program, he did not seem to be fully comprehend what his conclusions really meant.

The other person was a little bit better. He was an international humans rights lawyer and was indeed in favor of universal human rights. He argued that human rights are universal by definition. If we demand them to be universal then they will be. That was more to my liking.

None of them however really could give a clear account of what exactly human rights are. They basically seemed to go along with the UN human rights declaration of 1948. This declaration entails a mix of positive and negative rights. They were aware of the difference and both agreed that human rights have to contain some positive rights. Therefore, human rights are constantly up for debate and can be extended.

Libertarians of course understand that if you are asking for universal rights, these can only logically be negative rights. A positive right has to be provided by someone else. That means that the provider of the positive right clearly cannot have the same positive right as the recipient. If both had the same, then they would cancel each other out. Therefore, none of them would have it.

Positive rights also necessarily need to violate negative rights. You cannot really have both. A negative right is essentially the right to be left alone. But since a positive right needs to be actively provided, the person who has to provide it is not left alone and therefore loses his negative rights. That means that as soon as you start talking about legitimate positive rights, you automatically open the door to totalitarianism.

Since even the lawyer advocated positive human rights as legitimate, he found himself in the absurd position to argue on the one hand in favor of universal human rights in space, meaning applying to any human being no matter where they are. On the other hand however, he was arguing that human rights can change in time, in other words that human rights are work in progress. Considering that, I think it is fair to conclude that both were actually moral relativists.

Then came the Q&A. One older person, who I knew was a communist from a previous event where he gave a talk asked the question, whether people could be allowed to accumulate an unlimited amount of wealth. Needless to say that there was quick agreement among the speakers, as well as most people in the room that that could of course not be allowed.

The agreement did not surprise me. But hearing this question in this context being asked by a communist, I suddenly realized that there might indeed be something wrong with “accumulating unlimited amounts of wealth”. Talking about accumulating wealth does not tell you anything about the source from which this wealth originates. Surely, one cannot simply be in favor of wealth accumulation. Say, someone accumulates wealth by robbing banks, in that case that would not be acceptable, would it?

The economics model of a lot of socialists is that the economy is a big pie of wealth that simply exists. All we have to talk about is who gets how much of that pie. That means within this model, everything is a zero sum game. If I win, someone else has to lose. That some people in the room really seemed to use this theory became clear when the speakers pointed out that rich people clearly have more property rights than poor people. They simply did not seem to understand that property right is a negative right and has nothing to do with how much property you actually own.

If you don’t understand this then clearly accumulating wealth in any form means to steal something from someone else. If that were really the case, I too would be against wealth accumulation. On the basis of this theory, I can also understand why people think we need positive rights. Positive rights then essentially become negative rights, as they just prevent some people from stealing too much.

Of course this theory is everything but true. It is complete nonsense. Wealth needs to be constantly created. And creating wealth is not always very easy. Some people are better at it then others. But no one who creates wealth is stealing from someone else. None of that however comes out in the formulation “accumulating wealth”. If he understood economics, what he really should have asked is, whether people can be allowed to create an unlimited amount of wealth.

It would be interesting to see if people could as easily say no to that. Why would anyone be against creating wealth? Of course that still leaves open the possibility of taxing people who have created wealth. But once we are talking about wealth creation rather than wealth accumulation then the whole debate is shifting away from redistribution. Once you have the right model of economics you can then more easily argue why taxation is bad. Unfortunately, none of that was understood by most people in the room and so it ended up being a rather confused debate. But it was fun anyway.

  5 comments for “Why “Accumulating Wealth” is Wrong

  1. Paul Marks
    Oct 6, 2015 at 9:26 pm

    The idea that basic moral right and wrong (natural law, natural justice – not just “natural rights”) is not universal was the idea that Edmund Burke attributed to Warren Hastings. Accusing him of “geographical morality” was not intended as a complement.

    As Burke wrote in a reply to a lady who had written to him in defence of Hastings (asking how Burke could possibly side with Indians against Mr Hastings) Burke replied that people were people – regardless of whether they had “your lilies and roses in their faces”.

    Of course Oriental Despotism existed (and exists) – but that does not make it right. No more than the despotism of Louis XIV or Frederick the Great was right.

    As for the idea that collective crime (robbery and murder) has long term economic benefits for the poor is wrong.

    Socialism does not benefit the poor – it makes the poor worse off over time. Indeed full socialism (unlike the half socialist countries that make up the modern West – including Britain) leads to starvation.

    For a refutation of the economic claims of socialism (even from a utilitarian point of view) see “Socialism” and “Human Action” by Ludwig Von Mises.

    As for the

  2. Tim Carpenter
    Oct 6, 2015 at 11:22 pm

    Totalitarians don’t tend to like outsiders accumulating wealth, ie power. They want it all for themselves or under their direct control.

    They tend to turn a blind eye to insiders, naturally.

  3. Julie near Chicago
    Oct 7, 2015 at 1:13 pm

    People don’t understand that wealth must be created. As Miss R. pointed out, the phrase “making money” is accurate as another way of saying “creating wealth,” although “making money is so loosely used these days as to refer to just about any form of getting money, including cat-burglary and fencing; or, take “making” in the physical sense, so counterfeiters (and I won’t name names) can be said, literally, to be making money.

    The question is not “Is it OK to accumulate wealth?” and it is not “Is it OK to create wealth?” The question is, “Is it OK to keep the wealth you have created?

    To me the answer is, Of course!!!

    But to the SJW’s, the answer is, Certainly not, at least perhaps past some amount that the average man can get by on.

    And then the question is, So should the wealth-accumulator spend all that money that represents his wealth? Or should he invest it, to pump up the economy and benefit society?

    And the answer is, He made it, so like the boat he built from scratch with his own two hands, he should do with it whichever he pleases. Or maybe he’d like to leave it to his dear old Mum, or to his dog.

    In short, it’s perfectly fine for a man to accumulate wealth that he’s acquired justly.

  4. Oct 9, 2015 at 11:36 am

    Even the “free market” wing of the collectivists is crazy. For example I recently had a dispute with someone on the supposedly free market roll-back-the-state “Pan Am” site.

    The contention of Mr Martin (to give the man his name) was that as “rich countries” have higher government spending than Puerto Rico the solution for the massively in debt government of Puerto Rico was to INCREASE government spending.

    The person appears to be unable to understand that when “rich countries” actually became rich they had much LOWER government spending than Puerto Rico now has.

    The same is true in the United States – yes New York and California have very high government spending now, but when they were developing (when they were “creating” their industrial wealth as Julie points out) they did NOT have high government spending.

    What rich areas are really doing now is spending-their-capital.

    And for people who think that all is well……..

    Take a trip to Up State New York, or to the Central Valley of California.

    Away from the Federal Reserve Credit Bubble – the economies of the “rich” areas are in decline.

    Big government does not work.

    If it did – then people and business enterprises would be going from South Dakota to Minnesota, not the other way round.

  5. Oct 9, 2015 at 11:39 am

    As for the idea that “human rights” in the sense of “civil liberties” come under a “different principle” from ordinary business private-property-rights (freedom to buy and sell under voluntary agreement).

    This is wrong – J.S. Mill was mistaken, it is not a “different” principle, it is the same principle.

    The non aggression principle of the Common Law.

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