With the increasing disparity of wealth, which has demonstrably not well served the societies that have indulged an economic structure that allows for, or, indeed, encourages such inequity, it would seem that our culture, and our species, needs to address a fundamental question head-on. How rich is too rich?
Indeed, if most spiritualities and philosophies agree that a simple life is most honorable, and certainly most "natural", what does it say when an individual, or a society, spins out of control in the opposite direction? It means that that individual/society has lost its way, spiritually, morally, even rationally. And yet, so often we actually see such out of control behavior applauded, encouraged, celebrated, strived for. We have now become buying-consuming zombies, where the currency, literally and figuratively, of a "successful" and "admired" life is wealth, possessions and fame. Our true value system has been turned upside down.
Why have our thousands-year-old spiritual traditions been unable to thwart, or even contest, this depravity of the mind and heart and soul? To the contrary, many of them have joined in with it... now proclaiming that "God wants you to be rich!", an astounding corruption of the message of Jesus and other spiritual founders (but, of course, a trusty method for making the purveyors of such proclamations rich).
Perhaps this is another case where we have to hit rock bottom before we wake up and get our act together. As long as the natural world and our economic systems seems to keep gushing forth wealth, free for the taking sometimes or with just a modicum of luck, the bull-rush of people clamoring to get more than their share simply builds, unabated. And now, as never before, the world economy has opened up this golden dream to the billions of India, China, Indonesia and other formerly forlorn third-world outposts who now want to live like Americans or Swiss.
The planet cannot sustain even us Americans, much less three billion American-wannabes. The bottom is near. The planet itself will fix this problem for us, if we cannot.
Is it possible that at the last moment we could save ourselves? Are we yet on the cusp of a species-wide epiphany that much of the old wisdom is confirmed in the mess we have made of our planet and our societies, and that the answer is moral, spiritual, intellectual self-control?
So we must change. We must evolve. We must transform individually and collectively. We must live up to our vaunted position as the Universe becoming conscious of itself. And stop being such greedy, stupid cretins.
As for those who will not control themselves, and there will surely be many, they must be controlled for the benefit of the whole.
Individually, we must embrace living simple, consuming not just less but far less, recognizing that happiness is not a commodity to be purchased. We must reground, rebalance, reconnect with the natural realm and our own human ancestry, neither of which intended us to need so much to live meaningful lives. We must bond in some semblance of solidarity with the billions of people living today who have virtually nothing compared to us. We must, at all costs, reinfuse our lives with some manner of virtue, which bonds us to our human family and the wider natural world, and helps us understand that "right living" is our higher purpose. And through this perception and philosophy we transform our current admiration for garish consumerism and waste and wealth into contempt for such behavior and lack of ethical/aesthetic compass.
Collectively, we must be willing to advance laws that likewise support a holistic approach to governance. Predatory capitalism and over-comsumption must be redefined as unwanted, indeed threats to economic stability and national security. A return to an aggressively progressive income tax rate is very definitely in order. Didn't America's economy, and middle class, do quite well during the 1950's through 70's, when the top tax rate was at least double what it is now? Under Eisenhower, a Republican, the top tax rate was over 90%. Today, conservative ideology has returned it back to very close to where it was when?.... 1929!
I'm no Marxist. I'm a capitalist myself. I'm self-employed. I've started several businesses. But we only need to look at the carnage, both in 1929 and today, to see the harvest of unregulated capitalism... and more importantly the glorification of greed. Only the double-edged sword of public opinion and governmental regulation can change this paradigm.
Am I dreaming that we can turn this around? Perhaps. But look at how world attitudes have changed, diametrically, in the past 50 years regarding such issues as civil rights, environmentalism, vegetarianism, women's rights, gay rights, animal rights. We are witnessing the evolution of human culture in real-time right now. Though this issue --- controlling greed -- may be the gnarliest of all, it also has the biggest stakes.
Now, my answer to "how rich is too rich?" I believe in today's dollars no single individual needs more than $250,000 per year to "live rightly". Go ahead, add another $100k for every member of the household (keeping in mind that adding too many children to our planet's load is not living rightly). I'm being very generous. It's way more than I make. You're still in the top 1% of all humans who have ever lived on Earth. There you go... live it up. You're not rich enough to be able to buy anything you want. You're a peon compared to the super-rich. You'll need to balance your budget. If you're careful you might be able to take care of your kids for their lifespan... but doubtfully your grandchildren. And that's good. Why should you be able to foist on society not just one but multiple generations of potentially lazy and unproductive uber-consumers?
Oh, but you make much more than that. Give it away. Give it all away. Redistribute your wealth according to your preferences. Pick causes that sincerely benefit people or the planet and go deep. If you are fortunate enough to have that kind of money, why don't you take the words of the wisest and use it to make others happy, which in turn will make you happier? It's rational. It's moral. It's spiritual. It's good. The incentive to make more money is still there... except instead of being mere self-gratification it is holistic gratification and wider happiness you are creating. All we have changed is the moral grounding; we have excommunicated greed.
If you don't have the self-control and strength of character to give it all away, then you deserve public derision and contempt, and a visit from the IRS... as in Ike's day.
Where is the liberty in this? Your liberty ends where the public good starts. No individual, or small collection of individuals, should be able to horde most of the chips in an economic system, particularly when the mode of their collection is morally corrupt. When that becomes the case, the system must change.
Where are the leaders, the voices, who might forward such a transformation? The planet is waiting to see what we do.