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The insatiable quest for more can warp the mind

December 26, 2009|By ALLAN POWELL

Editor's note: Allan Powell's weekly column normally runs on Friday.

In a world where nations collide over the need for natural resources that each nation needs for survival or domination, they rely on some system of production, distribution and consumption of products. Within each macrosystem, individuals compete for their personal share of the gross national product as their personal wealth.

There is little agreement about the best system for the distribution of wealth or the motivation that drives each of us to accumulate wealth. With that in mind, it was a total surprise to come upon the opinion of John M. Keynes, the renowned British economist, in the most recent biography of his eventful life. What is so remarkable is that he lost his fortunes three times before he settled securely into the ranks of the wealthy.

During these periodic economic convulsions, Keynes had the time to think deeply about the proper place of wealth and the pursuit of money. He concluded that wealth was a means - not an end - and that the end or goal was to "live wisely, agreeably and well!" This is a rather noble, idealistic statement for one who labored in the trenches to earn some dollars, only to lose it in an uncertain marketplace.

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Those who would presume to give advice about how to manage the economy should have the qualities Keynes attributed to one of his most admired professors of economics. "He must be mathematician, historian, statesman, philosopher in some degree." Also, "He must be purposeful and disinterested in a simultaneous mood and incorruptible as an artist, yet sometimes as near to earth as a politician."

These desirable qualities would exclude the greedy, devious, wasteful and uncaring persons who regard wealth as an end in itself rather than a means to do good for others or for public service.

The recommendation to pursue wealth in order to live "wisely, agreeably and well" probably seems like insanity to those guilty of conspicuous consumption, cornering the market to create a monopoly, producing faulty products to maximize profit or polluting the environment. Those who live balanced lives on modest fare consider it insanity to scratch and claw continually for material gain with no saturation level.

Keynes also contemplated in a detached mood about a specific form of wealth - money. Keynes saw the value of money as an efficient tool to procure goods, not to be hoarded as an end in itself. Making money to make more money seemed like a senseless fixation to be explained in Freudian terms. It could also be explained, as Aristotle did, as an endangerment to the good life when the acquisition of money is seen as intrinsically valuable.

It might be an interesting commentary on our culture that, while we claim to base our major values on a biblical foundation, two biblical exhortations seem to have eluded our grasp. "The love of money is the root of all evil" (I Timothy 6:10) and "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter the kingdom of God" (Matthew 11:24) are reminders that we have a higher calling to consider.

While the recommendation to "live wisely, agreeably and well" at first look seems simple and pedestrian, it actually is a good foundation for a healthy lifestyle. We must face the fact that it takes a strong character to restrain the powerful force of envy that relentlessly induces us to compare our lot with others in better material circumstances.

Leo Tolstoy, in his classic parable "How Much Land Does A Man Need?," goes to the heart of the matter. Sadly, Pakhom, an ambitious - but envious - peasant learns too late that all of the land he needed was a plot 6 feet long and 3 feet wide in which the wandering Baskirs could place his weary bones. The insatiable quest for more and more can warp the mind and needs moral and rational guidelines.

Allan Powell is a professor emeritus of philosophy at Hagerstown Community College.

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