November 24, 2008

Throughout recorded history, most human beings have been poor. Poverty has been the norm and affluence the exception. Given a choice, most of us would rather be affluent than poor, but in this year of jarring financial losses, many of us are realizing that affluence can be fleeting [“… riches certainly make themselves wings.” (Proverbs 23:5)]. Affluence presents its own challenges, beyond simply the challenge of how to retain it.

Affluence can be the beginning of the end of a great civilization. Consider this famous outline, attributed to Alexander Tytler (1748-1813) of the sequential stages of a civilization:

From Bondage to Spiritual Faith,

From Spiritual Faith to Great Courage,

From Courage to Liberty,

From Liberty to Abundance,

From Abundance to Selfishness,

From Selfishness to Complacency,

From Complacency to Apathy,

From Apathy to Dependency,

From Dependency back into Bondage.

If “Abundance” (i.e., affluence) is the zenith of a civilization, is it possible that we have passed that point and have entered a stage of civilizational decline? Economically, affluence seems to have dulled our work ethic. Many Americans have a sense of entitlement, feeling that somebody owes them “the good life.” In other countries, hundreds of millions of humans have recently climbed out of poverty. Should we resent or fear these “nouveaux riches?” No, they deserve our respect — and in some cases our admiration — for having emulated the hard work and frugality common to earlier generations of Americans.

Another sign that affluence has lured us off track has been the proliferation of high-leverage derivatives and aggressive hedge funds. Somewhere along the way, Wall Street forgot the purpose and value of capital. When invested in a productive business, capital blesses one’s fellow man by increasing the productivity of labor and bringing prices down for consumers while raising wages for workers. Recently, though, capital has become so abundant that financiers “invested” paper wealth for the sole purpose of generating more paper wealth, none of which contributed to the production of real wealth that uplifts people. “Behold, all was vanity and vexation of spirit, and there was no profit under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 2:11).

Affluence has corrupted our politics, too. We began to take affluence for granted and assumed that everyone should have it. This led to a vast system of transfer payments that consumed capital. To “spread the wealth,” politicians made lenders issue mortgages to Americans that they couldn’t afford, thereby producing the housing bubble that has devastated our economy.

One of the most destructive byproducts of our affluence has been the decline in birth rates. We have fallen in love with the beguilingly easy life that affluence affords to such an extent that we shun the demanding and expensive (though richly rewarding) task of raising children. Like a spreading plague, native populations in wealthy countries like Spain, Germany, France and Japan are contracting rapidly. The European countries rely on Islamic immigrants to fill jobs and finance their government retirement programs. Even the U.S. population borders on shrinking were it not for immigration. I used to provoke environmentalist zealots by telling them that capitalism was the cure for overpopulation, since capitalism generates wealth and most people aren’t willing to procreate their families out of affluence, but I never dreamt that capitalistic America would flirt with societal suicide.

Finally, the greatest challenge posed by our unprecedented affluence is that the rise of affluence has been mirrored by a fall in religious commitment. Indeed Proverbs warned us of this risk: “… give me neither riches nor poverty. … Lest I be full, and deny thee, and say, Who is the Lord? or lest I be poor, and steal, and take the name of my God in vain” (Proverbs 30:8,9). Many Americans have been lulled by affluence into relegating God to the background. Who needs God when you’ve got it made, right?