Henry Ford famously quipped, “any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black.” The logic of the assembly line demanded a quick drying paint. At the time of the quip, it was available only in black. So, black paint became the only choice of colour for Ford’s famous Model Ts.
Today, Ford’s one-size-fits-all notion of choice is the dominant ideology of our lives. Live any way you want, we are told, so long as you live exactly the way we want you to live. Pursue wealth before all else. Get rich or die trying.
Death, in this old world order made new, isn’t necessarily literal. Indeed, it starts as a social death and too easily becomes a literal death. When wealth is the highest aim of society, there can only be Haves and Have-nots. The Haves matter and the Have-nots do not. Only the Haves, the Haves quickly decide, are entitled to a long, healthy and meaningful life.
Wealth, of course, has a role to play in any just society. We should accept and encourage some wealth accumulation. It is an important means to many other valuable aspects of life. For some, it is also an useful motivator. It shouldn’t, however, be the highest or only goal of society or of all lives.
For one reason, wealth can be horded. Yes, happiness, good health, and justice can be denied. They can’t, however, be hoarded in offshore accounts. Moreover, wealth, once hoarded, becomes one of the most effective means to deny happiness, good health, and justice to others.
There are also limitations to the instrumental value of wealth. Once a person amasses a certain amount of wealth, more wealth does not create any more lasting happiness. Excessive wealth buys only fleeting pleasures. It can even lead to frustration. Like addicts everywhere, the wealthy soon find themselves chasing the dragon of hedonistic pleasure, at the expense of other people’s well-being.
There are also many paths to wealth that are neither good, fair, virtuous, efficient, or sustainable. Every path to wealth isn’t evil. It is, nevertheless, far too easy to embrace evil in wealth’s name, when it becomes the only or most important goal.
And finally, a society focussed on maximizing wealth tends to suppress and even destroy other valuable ways of life that are not focussed exclusively on the accumulation of wealth. From the perspective of justice and from the perspective of security, this is a concern.
In a just society, all people should be able to pursue whatever way of life they enjoy and have enough wealth to have a decent life too. In a secure society, diversity is the source of its strength. A society in which a rich variety of ways of life flourish is likely to be both just and secure. In contrast, a society that is focussed too much on wealth can only be unjust, weak, and prone to collapse.
There are many reasons for humans to come together, to cooperate, and to work together. Wealth creation will always be one important goal for human society. We are always better off materially when we work together. Wealth, however, should never be the highest or only goal of society. It’s a false idol. It’s worship leads only to its own downfall. Divided by wealth, human society – the very ground of wealth – is doomed to collapse.