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Wisdom, Wealth, and Waste

Friends and enemies tend to have something in common: neither will hesitate to point out your errors. I therefore considered it a collegial gesture when Jordan Ballor at the Acton Institute PowerBlog decided to counter my recent post.

Good stewardship, Ballor argues, implies there is a right and wrong way to spend money. In my original piece, I explored the possibility that it is, in a sense, impossible to waste money, and that even the most extravagant expenditure creates economic growth and opportunity for the poor. Ballor responds:

A basic problem with this kind of view is that it cannot distinguish between types of consumption. Maybe we need “ethics” rather than “economics” proper to do so, but that just goes to show the limitations of the economic way of thinking.

Indeed, for the sake of brevity, I framed my question in the context of aggregated buying and selling, by definition an economic analysis. The most obvious observation—and one referenced by Ballor—would be that one could waste money by simply burying it, as the parable of the talents illustrates.

At the end of my piece I acknowledged this in concluding that “aside from destroying it, it seems that the only way to waste money is to stand in its way.” In other words, as long as money is flowing through the market in some form—including interest-bearing accounts—it is being put to good use, and therefore cannot be entirely wasteful.

Thus, as we shift into the ethics of stewardship, it is clear that one immoral use of wealth is to hide it from the world. But this is certainly not the only immoral choice.

I hinted at another concern in writing that “excessive consumption and needless luxuries may be a problem for a particular individual.” We must each be responsible for the use of what God has provided, and there are an endless number of wicked things we could spend money on.

“My point is that luxury is not wasteful prima facie.”

But how should we view such activity when we return to aggregate effects? I placed this problem in terms of investment and return. Society, as a collective unit, will “invest” in a set of things, which will produce a commensurate return. We invest in industries like automobiles, medicine and professional sports, and in return we enjoy benefits—mobility, health and entertainment. But we also invest in narcotics and pornography, and in return we get broken people and broken families.

While my piece emphasizes the economic sense of “waste” and asserts that the market will tend to make better choices than government, Ballor is correct to demand a more encompassing definition that considers the damage done to society if we pretend that individual expenses somehow do not matter in the aggregate. There are, of course, differences in types of consumption, and we should be attentive to the way in which our consumption affects our world.

From this point, we might ask how public policy ought to reflect our conviction that certain goods and services are not actually good, and do not truly serve; that they are, in reality, a cancer upon the human soul.

Should these be identified and banned? If so, then by whom, and through what process? Moreover, who constructs the process? These are some of the most critical, but also most difficult questions of political theory, which can only be explored in a much larger discussion. What is certain is that judgment must be exercised by every individual, regardless of one’s political context.

My argument simply sought to dispel the commonly accepted notion that luxury is wasteful prima facie, and that wealthy people somehow deserve to be shamed for extravagant purchases.

If those purchases advance ends destructive to the purpose of humanity, of course they should be condemned—even if they do produce some benefits. But this could be applied to even the smallest expense. In other words, if any waste is to be found in the purchase of a bottle of wine, it is not because one costs $2,000 when a $15 bottle will do, but perhaps because the person drinking it has an alcohol addiction or a hungry child.

If I am missing something here, no doubt Twitter will let me know.

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