29 September 2016

Money Makes the World Go 'Round

Aristotle offers up some observations and guidance on money matters. None of this will be talking points on CNBC or FOX Business network.

It is more about the character of a man and what we learn about him from the way he uses his money.

So what did Aristotle have to say about the one per-centers that inhabited Classical Greece?

If honorable men, they exhibit the virtue of magnificence. They spend  enormous amounts of the wealth--not on themselves "merely to display his wealth and thereby gain admiration," but for the benefit of their fellow citizens. The magnificent man " does not lavish money on himself, but on public objects." In Aristotle's day, such objects included warships, public buildings, public festivals, etc.

We see something like Aristotle's idea of magnificence in America's one per-centers. In our more complex society, they work largely through foundations. America's first generation of super-rich--Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, Henry Ford, all established foundations to contribute to the public good. The work of the Carnegie Foundation remains the most visible of all--from Carnegie Hall in to libraries in small towns all across America.

Today's one per-centers continue that tradition. Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, David Packard, the Koch brothers, the Walton family have all established foundations to put their wealth to serving the public good in some fashion or another.

But what about the rest of us--the ninety-nine per-centers?

Aristotle identified the similar virtue  as it is manifested by the rest of us as liberality--or as we might put it today, generosity.

As with other virtues, Aristotle provides no hard and fast rules about generosity. He reiterates his usual approach. "The liberal man will give with a view to, or for the sake of, that which is noble, and give rightly--he will give the right things to the right persons at the right times--in short, his giving will have all the characteristics of right giving."

According to Aristotle, right giving includes giving of "the right sources--his own property." It includes giving the right amount, "proportioning the gift to the fortune of the giver." A man who gives a smaller sum may be described as more liberal "if his means be smaller." (Jesus was not the first to recognize this principle.) It also includes giving to the right persons--people with "a well-regulated character"--rather than enriching those "who ought to be poor." Who ought to be poor? Aristotle does not specify. In the context he seems to mean undisciplined persons who will not work and/or those who waste their own meager fortunes on the wrong things. Never give to those Aristotle calls "casual persons," even if Jesus says so.

 Imagine Jesus and his disciples with Aristotle walking home after sharing a few glasses of retsina over at Parmenides' Place. They encounter a beggar reeking of alcohol. Jesus would instruct Judas to reach in their money bag and slip him some cash. God will provide a reward, Jesus says,  because of the good motives--even if the beggar uses the money for drinking and whoring. Aristotle would say no--the beggar's character is such that it is just that he remain poor and do without. (Aristotle's concept of justice is that each person receives his due--what he deserves.) Moreover, Aristotle says, giving to the beggar depletes the resources needed for giving to the right person.

Aristotle notes the vices surrounding money--those vices of excess and deficiency. The vices of deficiency is not giving at all but only taking. The taking includes both "common thieves" and those who acquire money through debased means such as "brothel  keeping" or loaning small amounts of money at high interest. He says illiberality is incurable.  The vice of excess he calls prodigality. It means giving too much money, to the wrong persons, for the wrong reasons. Overspending on the wrong things means less money to spend on the right ones.

So which vice is worse?

In Aristotle's view, the prodigal is better than the illiberal man for "the former does good to many while the latter to no one--not even to himself."

No comments: