Why are people who oppose capitalism so obsessed with money?


Capitalists are frequently accused of being mercenary, in the sense that they are fixated on accumulating the greatest amount of wealth at the expense of other important issues. Their critics like to present themselves, in comparison, as focused on less tawdry, more important matters: happiness; social justice; public welfare.

Yet if once looks at the writings of anti-capitalists, they do seem to spend a lot of time talking about money.

Let us take one particular family of anti-capitalist: the egalitarian. Egalitarians believe that equality is an end in itself, or at the very least it is a means to a better end. We frequently hear the egalitarian mantra that “equal societies have more social cohesion, more solidarity, and less stress; they offer their citizens more public goods, more social support, and more social capital; and they satisfy humans’ evolved preference for fairness” (to which egalitarians add plenty of other nice things, as well – notably that “more equal societies are happier”). As a consequence, they advocate policies that seek to actively promote equality; to ‘narrow the gap between the richest and the poorest.’

Others might question the validity of the statements, and/or the wisdom of the policy ambition. Fewer ask the question “why the obsession with money?”

This question occurred to me this morning as I was thinking about the Wilt Chamberlain example (that’s what happens when you miss a night’s sleep!). The Wilt Chamberlain case is Robert Nozick’s classic demolition of “distributional justice” – the idea that certain distributions of wealth are fair, morally right or desirable (it does not matter whether that distribution is equality or if “shares vary in accordance with some dimension you treasure”). Put simply, he asks what happens to one’s notion of distributional justice if individuals choose to change the distribution? In this instance, what happens if large number of individuals choose to part with some of their share in return for the opportunity to watch Wilt Chamberlain wow them with some amazing feats of basketball?

Nozick’s point is twofold. Firstly, distributional justice is intrinsically unsustainable, because those pesky humans inherently inject a degree of entropy into the system: they will redistribute the money through free exchange, quickly wrecking any pattern of distributional justice. Nozick suggests that this new distribution must be equally just, because it is brought about by the voluntary action of individuals who began in a state of perfect distributional justice (after all “what was it for if not to do something with?”).

As a consequence, egalitarianism requires continual interventions “to stop people from transferring resources...” (or rather, to rectify the results of those transfers). Clearly, this undermines the incentives that money serves to transmit: Wilt might rather pursue his other hobby if not paid to shoot hoops. This is Nozick’s second point – probably the more important one for libertarians (and for liberals who also see themselves as egalitarians): egalitarianism is completely incompatible with freedom. The guardian of distributional justice must constantly intervene to thwart free exchange among individuals.

So far, so good, Robert. However (unless I’ve forgotten something since reading Anarchy, State and Utopia), Nozick overlooks another feature of the egalitarian mindset: the egalitarian is utterly fixated on money.

Let’s examine the Wilt Chamberlain a bit more. The fans clearly value the sight of Wilt dribbling more than they value the cost of the ticket; Wilt clearly values the resulting millions more than he values baiting the Black Panthers. What matters in society is one’s ability to satisfy one’s ends, not the amount of cash one has under the mattress. Therefore an equal society is surely one where everybody’s ends are equally satisfied. If Wilt and his fans are equally happy, society is equal even as Wilt amasses his millions. If Wilt and his fans are compelled to have the same amount of money, and as a result Wilt’s fans feel deprived of good basketball while Wilt gets to accompany the President to an important funeral, society is unequal even if Wilt and his fans have a similar bank balance.

Nozick isn’t completely oblivious to this: he asks “Why might somebody work overtime in a society in which needs are satisfied?” and answers “Perhaps because they care about things other than needs.” The libertarian, clearly, understands that there are things more important than money. The odd thing is that the egalitarians do not. For them, it is the distribution of wealth that is the essential criterion; it is the relative amount of money that people have that decides whether a society is just or not.

As such, it really is the egalitarians that are obsessed with money. For the rest of us, there are much more important things in life.