Is it immoral to be rich?

On June 14th, A.Q. Smith wrote a piece for Current Affairs titled It’s Basically Just Immoral To Be Rich. Smith’s basic thesis is that in times of widespread economic poverty having immense wealth is immoral. He believes the act of not giving away your excess income to those in need makes you complicit in their suffering.

Smith rightly points out that we spend a lot of time arguing about the morality vs practicality of policies (tax code, food stamps, healthcare) without paying a lot of attention to the morality of those operating in those systems. Basically, people get a pass for following the rules of the system they’re in, regardless of if those rules are moral or not.

I read this article back in June and I’ve been thinking about it ever since, so I thought it would be a fun topic to write about here.

What does it mean to be ‘rich’?

For argument’s sake, Smith gives a moral pass for income under $100k per person, with a bonus $50k per child. So a single mother can earn $150k guilt free, while a couple with two kids can earn $300k total. I think this is a wide margin, but let’s stick with it.

First off, $100,000 is a lot of money. Let’s not pretend it isn’t. For an individual in my state maxing out their 401k, that would leave about $60,000 after taxes and retirement contributions to live on, which is enough to pay the mortgage on a $300,000 house and still have enough leftover for student loans, car payments, a healthy social life, and building up an emergency fund. It also means you’re doing better than 87% of Americans. So if you’re about to say, “Well, I live in [really expensive city], and…” just stop. It’s a lot of money!

Is there a moral obligation to redistribute wealth? 

My partner and I fall way below Smith’s threshold for the grotesquely rich, so we shouldn’t ever have to feel guilty, right?

Except I do. I feel guilty when I pass homeless people on the street. I feel guilty when I see a GoFundMe for a peer’s surgery. I even feel guilty that I’ll be paying off my student loans soon, while others are crippled by the debt for years and years.

Yes, I earned the money I have. I made the ‘smart’ choice and majored in a field that has plenty of lucrative job opportunities. But assuaging my guilt by saying that I deserve to be where I am implicitly says that those who are struggling deserve to struggle. And it isn’t the whole story, either. The whole story is that I was born white and able bodied. And that my mother was able to pay for a significant portion of my college education. And that I got my first internship because my mother knew the hiring manager. And that I have never had a car payment because I’ve always gotten hand-me downs when my mom or step-dad upgraded. And so on.

So if I acknowledge that the meritocracy is a myth, then I actually don’t deserve money (aka well-being) any more than anybody else? And if I don’t deserve to live comfortably more than anybody else, should I be giving away my money?

Basically, I think so.

How do I redistribute my wealth?

Well, with a budget, obviously. My partner and I have a charitable giving budget, and we use the majority in direct-giving.

  • I try to carry cash around to give to people on the street. If I don’t have cash, I’ll sometimes offer to go into CVS and buy them whatever they need.
  • I give to the GoFundMe pages I see on my social media – almost all of them.

We also give to a couple charities that are near to our hearts. I don’t know if this is the right or best way to do this. Some people will point out that it’s not tax-efficient to give this way, and those people will have missed the point.

But I can’t give away all my money!? 

Because we live in a country with rampant income and wealth inequality, it’s very likely that you, my reader, are not in a position to give a bunch of money away. Here are some things that are important and make a real difference in quality of life. (P.S.- Even if you give your money away you should do these things.)

  1. Build your community – Join an organization in your town. It doesn’t matter if it’s a book club, a church, or a D&D league – just make sure that you’re building a supportive network of people who look out for one another.
  2. Support your community – Offer rides, childcare, meals, and general help to the people in your community. Shovel your neighbor’s sidewalk when it snows. Offer hand-me-downs to the couple with the new baby. And don’t forget to accept help when it’s offered to you!
  3. Remember – Everybody is your community.

Bonus round: Vote and also help your community vote – see #2-#3.

Extra credit on bonus round: Create lasting change by joining or starting an organization focused on increasing equality in your community – see #3

I still have big questions.

Like, how much money do we actually need? Could I be giving away more? How do I preserve the dignity of the people I give to? Who should I give my money to? 

Obviously I don’t have all the answers… let me know if you want to help me figure them out!