Historically, the idea that everyone should have certain rights and wealth is a new one. Before the Enlightenment, those societies that thought about it at all were mostly concerned about the moral behavior of their citizens, as determined by the clergy. Wellbeing in this world was almost irrelevant. I don’t believe that for a minute.
So what is it that every person in the world deserves?
A good place to start is by eliminating what is unessential. We in the rich countries have come to think of many things as essential that are not. Cars, TVs, and electronic gadgets are not. Big houses, designer clothing, and Ivy League college are not. Prime rib, club memberships, and computers are not. You get the idea.
Actually, the essentials—and let’s talk about the whole world here—vary in their specifics, but not in their indispensability. Housing, for example, means insulated and warm in cold places. In the tropics it means a secure, well-ventilated place with a non-dirt floor. A small home can be perfectly satisfactory; McMansions are an affront to decency and a waste of money.
Around the world,
the essentials vary in their specifics,
but not in their indispensability.
We could go down the list of essentials and say pretty much the same about every part of it. Clothing, food, education… Everyone needs these minimal things, but nobody needs more. How essentials are manifested varies with location. That doesn’t mean nobody should have more or want more, only that more is not what essentials are about. Once you have all essentials, any additional amount is wealth.
In the US we have come to think of old age insurance as essential—and it is. To think otherwise is to condemn the aged to penury and suffering in their latter years, hardly something that should happen in a just and humane society, particularly the richest one the world has ever seen. But the same sort of protection is not as important in societies where elders remain at home, cared for by their extended family until they die.
Medical care and old age
security are essentials.
We have also come to think of medical care as essential—and it is, for everyone in the world. Here as elsewhere, having Cadillac care is not what it’s about. We have medicines and vaccines for many of the diseases and conditions that commonly killed or crippled many people in the past. I maintain that these meds are essential now, and should be available to everyone, worldwide. It is a judgment on us that so many die because they are not. In third world countries people die of all kinds of curable conditions, including various exotic curable diseases that Americans are not familiar with, not to mention simple starvation. But even in the US, diseases untreated because of the lack of insurance for 45,000,000 people cause some 140 deaths daily. Obamacare will fix some of that.
On a global level there is reason to be optimistic. There is no shortage of greedy scoundrels everywhere, but the general trend for centuries has been in the direction of more personal freedom, fewer wars and other violence, more education, greater affluence, more democracy. Would that progress were faster.
But my hope is that another element would join the list of those essentials for a decent life: social wealth.
Social wealth is what makes life good.
It’s what we do for enjoyment.
The western world defines wealth and success wholly in terms of money. I hold that not only is this unrealistic because we are bumping up against the planet’s natural limitations, but it completely misses the things that make life joyful: social wealth.
I hold that having some money beyond what is crucial is pleasant, and makes living easier, but that having great wealth beyond the point where more doesn’t improve one’s life is simply greed, and it hurts others. A far more important element is social wealth.
I define social wealth mostly as activities that one does with others purely for enjoyment, which is a very broad field. Some find great pleasure in cheering their NFL team, and some say there is absolutely nothing so exciting as high school basketball. Others are thrilled to their core by a memorable opera performance. Potluck with friends, volunteer work, Saturday night dances, a garage band, art classes… there is no limit to the things we can do for enjoyment, and these, I contend, are so significant to us that great wealth is simply unimportant as long as our essential needs are met.