Massive accumulation of wealth cannot be justified
Mary Szromba | Wednesday, October 9, 2019
In 1989, there were 198 billionaires in the world. Ten years later in 1999, that number increased to 465 – that’s about 2.3 times more. Today, there are 2,153 billionaires. That’s 4.6 times more billionaires in the same number of years. Meanwhile, almost 600 million people live in extreme poverty around the world.
Regardless of where you fall on the spectrum politically, it is hard to argue that these numbers reflect an ideal world. While global poverty is a complex issue that won’t be solved just by abolishing billionaires, it is at the very least problematic that more and more wealthy people achieve billionaire-status each year while millions of people struggle to put food on the table.
That said, the problem of billionaires is not exactly a hidden issue, and it is usually discussed every campaign cycle by both the right and the left. Here at Notre Dame, it is likely a relatively uncontroversial idea that it would be better to alleviate millions of people from poverty than it would be to add the 2,154th billionaire to the list – we just disagree on how to do it. While different people may draw the line in different places, most people on this campus can agree that at a certain point there is such a thing as too much wealth, and that point likely comes sometime before one reaches billionaire-status. The more troubling idea rests beneath the surface: how many Notre Dame families have crossed that line?
It’s no secret that most students here come from wealthier-than-average families. Take into account the fact that most of the student body is Catholic, and this becomes an issue.
Perhaps the most convincing evidence for this idea comes from the Bible itself. In the story of Jesus and the rich young man, Jesus says, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.” When his disciples express their dismay, Jesus utters his famous line, “Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” These quotes have been repeated so often that I’m sure you already know what I’m going to say: you cannot call yourself a Christian if you are consistently amassing an inordinate amount of wealth.
Putting aside the biblical anecdotes about the dangers of wealth accumulation, there is ample evidence to suggest that any modern Catholic should feel uncomfortable about amassing large amounts of money. In 2017, Pope Francis argued that the worship of money is an “idolatry that kills,” especially when it occurs in the face of other’s hardship. He continued on to say that “This idolatry causes so many to starve.” In its Pastoral Letter on Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy, the United States Conference of Bishops wrote, “Support of private ownership does not mean that anyone has the right to unlimited accumulation of wealth,” and, “The Bible castigates not only the worship of idols, but also manifestations of idolatry, such as the quest for unrestrained power and the desire for great wealth.” Later, the Bishops make their point even more explicit, saying, “All of us could well ask ourselves whether as a Christian prophetic witness we are not called to adopt a simpler lifestyle, in the face of the excessive accumulation of material goods that characterizes an affluent society.”
From a moral standpoint, I believe any wealthy student on this campus should think critically about their fortunes and question how much is too much, but I think this point is especially important for students who consider themselves Catholic. Both the Catholic Church and the Bible argue that hoarding wealth while others are suffering from poverty is sinful.
This is not just directed at the students with billions to their names, but to anyone who knows they have more money than they could realistically need. Just because you may know someone wealthier than you does not mean you absolved of your Catholic responsibility to live frugally. How many cars does your family have? How many houses? How many vacations do you take a year? To where? Is your wealth helping anyone in need?
Your answer to the last question may be the most telling. Many people believe that accumulating massive amounts of money can be justified, as wealthier people are more able to help others due to their increased capital. In reality, poorer Americans donate a larger proportion of their income to charity than richer Americans. Are you the exception to this data? Is your wealth actually helping anybody? Could it be helping even more?
These questions may be difficult and the conversations they lead to may be uncomfortable, but it’s important that we discuss the problem of wealth accumulation. The fact of the matter is, when you have amassed a great amount of wealth and the majority of that wealth remains with you and your family, it isn’t helping those in need. The quality of education we receive at Notre Dame means we all have the potential to accumulate wealth, even if we aren’t right now. As we prepare to enter the workforce, we need to ask ourselves whether or not this accumulation can be justified in light of our faith and our morals. If the answer is no, we have work to do.
Mary Szromba is a senior majoring in philosophy and political science, and she’s never been wrong about anything in her entire life. Questions, comments and anonymous love letters can be directed to [email protected] or @_murrrrrr on Twitter.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.