This is a Wealthy Country

*Posted by Barry Creamer

This Is a Wealthy Country

I heard this utterance in an interview recently. Ive heard it a thousand times before. No, I didnt count, but Im pretty sure a thousand is the right number. Ive heard the President of the United States use it to justify higher taxes especially on the wealthy. Ive heard a union deputy chief of staff use it to gain consensus that no American should be without sufficient pension. Ive heard it to justify welfare, to justify the capital gains tax, the death tax, and so forth.

But it is an equivocal statement whose meaning and intent contradict each other.

America is not a wealthy nation. It is over thirteen trillion dollars in debt. A wealthy person is worth a lot. A poor person is worth very little. A broke person is worth nothing. America is worth more than thirteen trillion dollars less than nothing. America is not a wealthy nation.

Then why does everyone nod in assent at the claim that the nation is wealthy? Because they dont consider what the claim means as it is used, and they dont examine carefully what it actually means.

What it actually means is this: This nation is composed of many wealthy people.

That statement is true. But a nation composed of many wealthy people does not imply that the nation itself is wealthy. That difference is obvious in the way the phrase is used. It is used to say that no one in a nation with this many wealthy people should have to be poor. Its use implies that there are both wealthy people and poor people who comprise the nation. The confusion leading to this particular error is called the fallacy of composition, committed whenever a person assumes of the whole what is true of its constituent parts. All of those players are great, so the team must be great. In this case the mistake is even more obvious. Some people and corporations in the nation are wealthy, therefore the nation must be wealthy; even though it makes just as much sense to say that some people and corporations in the nation are poor, therefore the nation must be poor.

If the government is wealthy, then it makes sense for the government to give its money back to the citizens who may be suffering at the time. But of course the government is not wealthy. The government is not the nation. And the nation is not wealthy anyway, as pointed out above. So there is a second confusion, this time between nation and government. To say that the nation is wealthy and therefore no one in the nation should suffer in poverty has one kind of rhetorical impact; to say that the government should confiscate the wealth of its wealthier citizens in order to give that wealth to some of its poorer citizens has quite a different rhetorical impact. What either statement really means is that the speaker believes we have enough wealthy citizens in the nation, and that we have enough power in the government, that we should be able to force a redistribution of what wealth there is without anyone complaining about it too much.

The fact that I am already complaining about it (and Im not even one of the wealthy) should suffice as evidence that the statement is untrue.

So the statement this is a wealthy country, therefore no one should suffer in poverty is really just cheap rhetoric. What statement(s) might suffice better to address the problem? How about these:

  • Anyone who has more than enough material wealth ought to demonstrate moral wealth by choosing to meet the needs of those who lack material sufficiency.
  • When the government demolishes the value of private property rights, the nation will continue toward moral poverty.
  • If individuals do not share, the nation is morally bankrupt.
  • If individuals do share, the nation can be morally wealthy.
  • The attempt to force material equality through the power of government pits material wealth against moral wealth.
  • Respect for private property with the promotion of virtue and charity allows for both material and moral prosperity.

In other words: we wont be morally wealthy if we keep up the rhetorical deception about being materially wealthy.

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