How Much Wealth Does One Person Need? Money Does Not Make the World Go Round

One of the characteristics that makes human beings very different from all other living organisms is that our desires are not limited, as they are in the case of other organisms, to what is necessary for the survival of both ourselves as individuals and, by having offspring, the survival of our species. As has been demonstrated throughout the course of human history, especially in recent times, human desires can be limitless.

First a million dollars, then a billion dollars, and eventually – at the rate things are going – a trillion dollars will be the new standard of extravagant wealth possessed by one single individual. This standard will be imitated by others who see no other goal in life than to accumulate wealth without purpose, except the vainglorious one of self-aggrandizement, much as a desert accumulates heaps and heaps of sand. Like the desert, a sterile place where little or nothing grows, the actions of these individuals are largely sterile. But unlike these rapacious human individuals, the desert does not think better of itself for possessing more grains of sand than any other desert.

The answer to the question posed in the title is obvious: human beings do not need very much in order to survive and beget children, while living safe, comfortable, and meaningful lives. But what is equally obvious is that there are practically no limits to human desires, whether greed, lust, gluttony, or the desire for fame or power over others. The same changes that have freed us from the limitations that exist in the case of all other organisms – namely, the fact that the primary determinant of our behaviour is the models of behaviour we observe, and not, as it is in the case of other organisms, innate genetic behaviours – are also responsible for these unlimited desires. Our desires have become increasingly detached from our needs, and it is this lack of a steadying anchor that is the primary threat to so many other forms of life. It is this peculiar feature of human beings that is now threatening not only the existence of many other species on the Earth but also our own.

For the members of thousands and perhaps millions of species, many of which had existed for thousands or millions of years before our disastrous rise to planetary dominance, it is already too late, as they have been eliminated by our highly destructive way of life, their survival made impossible by our selfish, voracious, and rapacious appetites for ever-increasing quantities of those things that we are pleased to call “material goods,” as if they were universally beneficial, when in reality the production and consumption of many of them have harmful consequences for other forms of life on the planet.

The economists, those extremely myopic scholars whose vision rarely extends beyond the narrow realm of economic activity, have designated by the general term “goods” things like meat, oil, books, cars, houses, phones, shoes, clothes, vacations, furniture, computers, pesticides, chemicals, plastic, metals, fish, wine, movies, planes, guns, bullets, bombs, and ships. But the modern methods that are used to produce all of these products or services involve processes that pollute, disfigure, contaminate, alter, or harm the Earth in other ways, other living organisms, and the oceans, lands, and atmosphere that are essential to life. Although these things may be good for the human organisms that use and consume them, they are clearly bad for both the environment and other living organisms. In other words, we call them “goods” because of our self-centred myopia, but most of these industrially-produced products are “bads” for the environment and for other living creatures. But since other organisms are not capable of voicing their objections to our selfish way of life, we blithely continue on our destructive path, oblivious and indifferent to the considerable harm we are causing them by our rapacious, immoral, and extremely selfish behaviour.

To the simple question, “Would the Earth and all its other inhabitants, who, together, vastly outnumber us, be better or worse off if there were no human beings?”, the answer is equally simple: there is no question that the Earth and all its non-human inhabitants would be infinitely better off without us. Except perhaps for a few diseases caused by viruses, bacteria, and parasitic worms, the Earth, together with its multitude of wondrous and astonishingly varied inhabitants, has absolutely no need of human beings in order to survive – and, in fact, they would be much better off without us. But we, however, cannot survive without the Earth and its teeming multitude of inhabitants, which is clearly shown by the fact that if all human beings were suddenly transported to a completely sterile environment like the surface of the moon or Mars, two places that many stupid and overcredulous humans actually believe will one day be inhabited by our species, we would all be dead in just a few minutes.

If the human race is to survive – for millions of years, as our ancestors did, instead of for mere decades or centuries – then we must cease damaging, destroying, and altering the environment which is essential to our survival, and without which we cannot live. In other words, we must develop a different norm than the dominant capitalist and consumerist norm that is presently doing so much harm to the Earth and all its other inhabitants, who have just as much a right to exist as we do. And if we do not recognize their basic right to exist, this is simply another example of how those who are strong and powerful exploit, enslave, destroy, dispossess, terrorize, exterminate, and tyrannize over those creatures who are less strong, intelligent, clever, cunning, powerful, and ruthless than they are. Because of our selfishness, arrogance, cunning, and cleverness, we have literally become evil and depraved monsters who vaingloriously believe that everything we do is good and, in large part because of this mistaken belief, have now become the greatest threat to the astonishing Miracle of Life that has blossomed and flourished here on this Earth.

There is no question that this transformation is possible. But there is, at the present time, a serious question about whether we have the will to make this necessary transformation in our lives, before it is too late.

It is a fundamental belief of free-market economists that allowing people to make money is the best way to motivate them to do or not do something, improve their standard of living, reduce inequality, alleviate poverty, improve societies, and make the world a better place, at least for human beings. Considering how much faith they have in the transformative, beneficial, and motivational powers of money, or more specifically in people’s desire for it, it is not an exaggeration to say that free-market economists attribute truly miraculous powers to people’s desire for money and material gain. So great is their faith in this particular human desire to effect beneficial changes that it has rendered a great many of them, as well as their many followers, completely blind to, while they simply ignore, the many harmful effects of human greed.

Contrary to what free-market economists and others believe, the desire for wealth is only one of innumerable human desires that are all particular instances of the desire to imitate the behaviour of those we observe and admire. It is this, and not the desire for money or material gain, that is the stronger and more fundamental desire. To consider some examples, every baby’s desire to walk and speak both result from the desire to imitate the behaviour of others,[1] and not from the economist’s presumed desire to make money, since at that age babies do not understand the value or utility of money. In order to acquire this understanding, they must first observe the model of money being accepted by other people for the things they want, such as ice cream, candy, toys, clothes, bicycles, games, food, admission to movies, and other things. In other words, babies and young children must observe the fact that pretty nearly all human beings will accept money for the things they want, many of which desires are also acquired by observing the behaviour of other people. It is only after they have observed these models, along with the model of having to work in order to earn money, that the paper and metal which comprise money, or, increasingly, the numbers in one’s bank account, come to acquire a certain value for them.

To return to the example of the baby’s behaviour, almost all babies learn to walk and speak the language they hear spoken by the people around them, and what is more, they exhibit an unceasing determination in their efforts, they learn to do these things quite well, and they learn to perform these and other important behaviours before they have learned the value of money. What these examples show is that, contrary to the economist’s mistaken belief, the desire for money or material gain is neither the best way, nor even necessary in many situations, to motivate people to do or not do certain things.

What is the basic principle of economics? As a wise elder once told me, “People do what they get paid to do; what they don’t get paid to do, they don’t do.” A wonderful book by Steven Landsburg, The Armchair Economist, distills the principle more concisely: “People respond to incentives; all the rest is commentary.”[2]

But this overly simplistic explanation of human motivation is wrong. To consider a common behaviour that very clearly refutes it, a parent doesn’t beget and take care of one’s children because of money, since one isn’t paid for doing so. In fact, as all parents well know, it costs a lot of money to raise a child these days, especially in richer countries. From a purely economic perspective, in wealthy individualistic countries, having children makes no sense, since children cost a lot of money to raise, feed, clothe, protect, shelter, educate, amuse, cure when they are sick or injured, and satisfy their many whims and desires, not to mention the many hassles, aggravations, worries, heartaches, and problems which they cause their parents, while many of them provide no financial return whatsoever, since they do not feel obliged to pay their parents back for everything they did for them when they were young.[3] In the case of soldiers that fight to defend their country, again, it cannot be said that they do so solely or even primarily for financial gain, since most soldiers do not get paid very much, and if they die, then they will not be able to spend the money they earn. It is only in certain well-defined situations that paying people can motivate them to work hard and strive to do the best they can.[4]

To consider another example, one of the commonly-advanced arguments for allowing patents is that individuals and companies will have no motivation to produce new products and processes unless they can profit financially from their discoveries or inventions. But this argument completely overlooks the fact that patents and copyrights are recent human inventions, and before that time, no one could patent or copyright anything because this model of human behaviour didn’t exist at the time. And yet, the inability to profit financially from one’s inventions, discoveries, or artistic creations did not deter the many individuals who worked unceasingly to make scientific discoveries and create works of art. The greatest scientists in history did not devote their lives to science so they could patent their discoveries and profit from them. They did so because they were spurred by the example of other individuals who lived before them and made comparable discoveries. The same is true of the greatest artists, most of whom lived long before the time that the model of copyright protection was developed and enforced by legal punishments in order to protect their works from unlicensed copying or reproduction by others. The list of great scientists and artists who did not profit much financially from their scientific discoveries or artistic creations includes most of the greatest names in history: Hippocrates, Euclid, Archimedes, Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Newton, Lavoisier, Faraday, Maxwell, Mendeleev, Planck, Curie, Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg, Homer, Virgil, Plutarch, Dante, Chaucer, da Vinci, Michelangelo, Montaigne, Cervantes, Shakespeare, Milton, Molière, Mozart, Blake, and van Gogh.

I am certainly not arguing that patents and copyrights should not be allowed. Apart from the question of motivation, there is also the question of just recompense for one’s discovery, invention, idea, or work. Moreover, in the case of products that take a long time and much money to develop, patents may be necessary in order to make these projects financially feasible. However, it is important for people to recognize that the commonly-advanced argument that patents and copyright protection are necessary in order to motivate people to do things, such as making discoveries, inventions, and new products, or working hard, is wrong.

Besides the influence of mistaken economic beliefs about human motivations, another reason for the prominence of monetary incentives in today’s societies is the pernicious influence of the Platonic educational system. Because Plato emphasized theoretical knowledge over practical ability, and because he didn’t understand how human desires are determined, many people have little or no desire to perform the work they must perform to earn money because they weren’t allowed to observe others performing that kind of work when they were children.[5] The solution to this problem, which I have discussed at greater length in The Theory of Imitation, is obvious: we must let children observe people working at their jobs regularly so that they will have the desire to do those kinds of work when they are older.

The desire to imitate the behaviour of others whom we admire is one of the strongest of all human desires. It is because we have believed those silly economists, who put a price on everything and believe that money makes the world go round, at least the human part of it, that we have made the mistake of supposing that monetary incentives are the best way to motivate people in all areas of human endeavour; and therefore the best way to improve people’s lives and society in general is by letting some individual or company make a profit from doing so, including areas such as health care and education, and important services like water, electricity, sewage treatment, garbage removal, and so on. Contrary to what they and many other people believe, it is imitation and conformity – and not the desire for money – that preserve human traditions and societies. The complex web of commercial and financial exchanges that are studied by economists is preserved, perpetuated, expanded, and modified by the forces of imitation, of which these are merely particular examples.

It is this fundamental misunderstanding about the true nature of human motivation that explains why applying free-market economic prescriptions – privatization, specialization, trade liberalization, deregulation, and minimal government intervention in the free market – in many places around the world has not produced the results that their many faithful believers have confidently predicted or expected. It is time for us to free ourselves from the highly pernicious influence of these quack doctors of humanity, so that we can recognize their errors, correct their many mistakes, and prevent them from causing even more harm, in order to make the world truly a better place for all of its inhabitants, both human and non-human.

[1] To those who would object that these desires are innate, I reply that children who are prevented from observing people walking and speaking are capable of doing neither of these things.

By way of contrast a woman in Clapham was prosecuted in the 1920s for having eight babies (each of which she was paid to care for) in five cots in the basement of her house. The babies ranged from newborn to three years old. The toddlers could not walk. They had never been out of their cots. They could not talk; they had not heard enough language.*

* Farewell to the East End by Jennifer Worth, “Lost Babies”. HarperCollins, 2013.

[2] The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists’ Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics by William Easterly, p. xii. MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2001.

[3] There exist many less individualistic societies in the world where parents expect to be taken care of by their children, and their children feel obliged to take care of them when they grow old, just as their parents took care of them when they were young and unable to take care of themselves.

[4] In Predictably Irrational, Dan Ariely describes the results of some experiments conducted by him and his colleagues which show that in situations where people don’t usually get paid, they are less motivated when they are paid a small amount than when they perform the work for free as a favour to someone. Moreover, although he does not use this term, the desire to imitate a certain model of behaviour, such as doing a job well or doing one’s best, can motivate people to work just as hard as others who are paid to perform the same activity.

[5] In imitation of Socrates, whom Plato adored immoderately, Plato spent much of his adult life asking silly questions like “What is beauty?” What is justice?” and “What is the good?” But in doing so, both he and his many followers have wasted their time searching for things that don’t exist, since Platonic universals – those immaterial essences that presumably give every material object its particular characteristics – don’t exist. We now know that people’s notion of what is good, or what is right and wrong, is dependent on the culture in which they grow up, meaning the models of behaviour which they have observed, and clearly these can differ from one culture to another. In addition, Plato neglected to ask the important question, “How does the desire to do something, such as to perform a certain kind of work, arise?” As a result of his tragic oversight, countless millions of children who have been miseducated the Platonic way have little or no desire to perform many kinds of work.