Whenever people get into political arguments one of the capstones of getting nowhere is arguing about wealth. Fiscal conservatives will argue it is immoral to take someone elses property solely to give it to someone else (ie, they don’t personally benefit from its expenditure) whereas fiscal liberals will argue either that wealth redistribution does benefit the rich or that it is immoral to have so much while others have so little.
You end up with an ethical debate between individual moralities of money, which will not get you anywhere once you simply state your view on matters – if the opposing view does not change your mind the first time, it probably will not the hundredth.
But what nobody ever discusses, or even considers, is the possibility of transient immorality. That wealth today can be tainted, while wealth tomorrow may not be. Thus leads me to my central argument here – regardless of how you want to argue about the ethics of wealth concentration or the forceful redistribution thereof in the general case – that we should all be able to agree the wealth distribution of today is the product of immorality and injustice. And that it is not something you can correct through steering as the fiscal liberal perspective would do nor does it imply any and all wealth has to be immoral.
The problem is that you can trace fortunes back millennia. The influences of the first generation of oligarchs can manifest through to today, because there has never been an absolute discontinuity of power throughout history (with an emphasis on history, rather than prehistory – in the 100,000 lifespan of modern humanity there have been instances of total societal collapse that have left entire peoples back at square one). Since 3000 BCE, when writing first emerged and we have more accurate documentation about the proliferation of humanity, we know that while kingdoms and empires have risen and fallen there has never been a point where all society in the world dissolved leaving people or families wholly on their own with nothing to their name. That implies a continuity of wealth – that at any point in time, someone had something, and those accumulations of wealth influence those around them in much the same way modern wealth can.
The consequence is that the distribution of resources today is predicated on the chronological history of humanity. The wealth itself changes form, from money to goods to property to influence, but those who had 5,000 years ago possessed wealth influenced the wealth of those thousands of years later. It is not necessarily a butterfly effect – vast accumulations of wealth can have had limited long term effect so long as that wealth was eventually lost, albeit because the whole of humanity never lost it all at once, the loss itself had effects of its own.
This means that I, today, sitting where I do, writing this essay, can lend my status and position (which as an American citizen not in abject poverty puts me in the top echelons of living humanity and so far atop the spire of all humans that it can be considered ludicrous how lucky I am) to the accumulation and handling of wealth for thousands of years. I am a product of history. I am where I am now because of what has happened. The privileges and rights I benefit from are the products of the mingling of wealth and power for at least the last 500 years.
The meaning behind it is thus that the wealth and privlidge people enjoy today was built on the backs of immorality and suffering. While the exploitation of humanity for profit continues full force today, in some parts of the world its influence is much diminished. Voluntary participation in markets is much more ethical than coercion by tyrants or invaders. People continue to pillage and burn and take in many parts of the world, but the frequency is much diminished in the west. But that does not mean we are clean of guilt – the money we have, the wealth we control, the fruits of progress were all seeded in injustice and cruelty. Uncountable wars, lives lost, people enslaved, people exploited, women raped, children abused, goods stolen, lands pillaged. They all contributed to the accumulation, destruction, and allocation of wealth throughout history.
It might be most prevalent in how one can look upon the gilded elite, born into money and whom never will be left wanting for needs for their entire life, but it applies to all of us. It applies to anyone except those at the bottom, who were taken from, either in opportunity, blood, or freedom. Who are still being taken from. The former is something everyone should be able to agree to, even if the later is the domain of liberalism and socialism. We should be able to at least agree that, while we can argue the morality of specific bastions of wealth today, we cannot argue that all wealth held now is founded on injustice.
This is my most fundamental divide with libertarianism and anarchism. You cannot just proclaim absolute freedom and consider yourself moral. You predicate such a society on the history that has lead up to it – if you take advantage of the technologies invented under tyranny, of the land upon which you till that was paid in blood a thousand times over, while you deny it to anyone else, you are a hypocrite. It is an implication that, just because you were in a position to produce a state of absolute freedom that you deserve it. As if the path that lead to the establishment of such a system were itself free of harm and aggression. Every dollar you bring into your new society that is not minted fresh of allocation to the old ways of wealth is one tainted with the suffering of billions past.
It is important to note, here, that this is not a condemnation of individuals. No one person in the world has the authority to change it, lest we all be slaves to a dictator. Nobody individually is responsible for the world we live in, it is a collective responsibility. To use the privilege granted you to try to make yourself comfortable and happy is obviously not wrong. All that matters is recognition of this original sin of humanity, that all we have accomplished is built of the bones of our fellows, that much of what we have is from someone else having it taken from them by force – be it today, or millennia ago.
The solution? We would, in theory, want a reset. Not a national one. It would require all of humanity alive today to agree that what we have, and who has it – right now – is predicated on the immorality of societies dating back to before we could write. This theory, of course, is extraordinarily far fetched at best. But a clean slate could finally give us a clean conscience. From that point on, while injustice and exploitation may continue, we can try to have global rule of law to correct it. To prevent the harmful from benefiting through committing harm.
Maybe in a few centuries we can become so enlightened and unified in having a clean conscience. For now, at least, we should at least be able to agree that the the world we have now is built on the back of human suffering. That no matter how much we try to absolve ourselves of responsibility or guilt, where we are now is because of what has been done before, for good or evil. That as we build up, we continue to do so on a foundation of blood. For an individual, I hope one can just be humbled to comprehend how fortunate we are to be where we are now, and to feel empathy for those who have lost lives, lost opportunity, to an unjust history that has brought us where we are now.