How to be wealthy and virtuous


Flickr image by lismEvery other day it seems there's a new set of data pointing to Australia's increasing economic wealth relative to other developed countries.

On Friday it was a rise in the number of people in work. Our unemployment rate has fallen to 5.5 per cent, compared with a figure of 10 per cent for the United States.

While key sectors of the US economy such as the auto industry are still on life support, investment is flooding into resource projects in Australia. The economy is so buoyant that most experts predict a fourth successive interest rate rise when the Reserve Bank meets in two weeks from now.

Australia's economy has come a long way since 1986, when then federal treasurer Paul Keating told John Laws that Australia risked becoming a banana republic. Then a decade ago, at the height of the dot com boom, Australia was perceived to have missed opportunities in the IT sector and was branded an 'old economy'. But a combination of good fortune and good management since then has put Australia ahead of the pack, at least for now.

There is no mistake that it can be a good thing to be wealthy. It's what you do with your wealth that is often problematic.

The Sydney Morning Herald's Peter Hartcher recently quoted a survey of 52 resource-rich countries and found that only four had managed to extract a real national benefit from nature's bounty: Chile, Malaysia, Indonesia and Botswana. Along with the United States, Canada, and New Zealand, Australia is one of just a handful of truly resource-rich nations 'to have made it all the way through the obstacle course to become First World countries'.

However it's one thing to avoid squandering a nation's wealth through corruption or mismanagement, and another to use the wealth to develop a better society in the moral sense. Wealth can and should have a social dividend.

Melbourne Business School philosopher in residence John Armstrong wrote about the 'noble' use of wealth in Friday's Australian Financial Review, in the context of the issue of executive remuneration.

He argued that wealth can enable a person to flourish if it is used to 'nourish the soul'. But if people use their money for 'ugly, ignorant, unimaginative or banal purposes, then they lack a moral title to their wealth'.

'It is good that a family live in a beautiful house — if they love it for its beauty; it is good to take interesting holidays — if these nourish your soul.'

If we are talking about a moral society, one's own sense of soul must be seen as a contributor to the nation's soul. Philanthropy can act to radiate this in a society where there is inevitably an unequal distribution of wealth.

It is legitimate to reward individuals according to their particular contribution towards realising the nation's wealth. But Armstrong argues that there is an amount to which they have 'moral title', and that while almost everyone has less than they need for their own 'finest flourishing', some people have too much.

Michael MullinsMichael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: michael mullins, wealth, unemployment figures, us economy, paul keating, banana republic, John Armstrong



submit a comment

Existing comments

Ponderable piece of text

Each of us needs to have that sense of soul and renew it daily
Judy | 18 January 2010

Thank you for this piece Michael. It seems to me that the question is not only what we do with our wealth, but where does it come from? Wealth can only have any moral value, I believe, if it is truly the result of our own diligence and not of our exploitation of others ... how many of us could earnestly say that?
M. | 18 January 2010

What is wealth?

Essentially, it is the power to command others to do the bidding of the one with money.

Quite legally, some choose to have hundreds of wokers make and maintain sea-going palaces, modestly called 'yachts'.

Others have new industries established to mine or produce useful materials or items -- or trash.
Perhaps, at least in democracies, governments should have more power to influence, if not direct, what workers should produce -- and how the products be distributed.
Bob | 18 January 2010

Hi Michael

Also 'how you make your wealth' needs attention. It's more important than how you use it.

Make morally, use effectively. :)

I don't think you forgot to mention it.
AZURE | 18 January 2010

Similar Articles

Tony Abbott and the price of virginity

  • Catherine Marshall
  • 29 January 2010

Tony Abbott and I have something in common: we've both been having the sex talk with our teenage daughters. The bizarre glorification of virginity and the latent distaste of our daughters' sexuality removes the very power with which we strive to arm them.


'Hysterical' Indian media speak the truth

  • Michael Mullins
  • 25 January 2010

Before Australia's racism can be dealt with, political leaders must follow General Peter Cosgrove in acknowledging its existence. Their reluctance to support his remarks could reflect their fear of speaking hard truths in a year of multiple elections.



Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up