The Wisdom of Money

In: Daniel In The News

4 Jul 2017

This review appeared in the Financial Times on 23 June.

It is all too easy for individuals to think that assumptions prevalent in their own country are universal. Take, for instance, the thorny question of politeness. What is considered reasonable behaviour in one country can be seen as outrageously rude in another. Just look at the faces of passengers on the London Underground when someone barges through a queue to get on to a crowded tube train.

The same is true of attitudes to money and to wealth more generally. What some might consider vulgar and ostentatious might be seen by others to be in the finest taste.

Pascal Bruckner’s The Wisdom of Money should be viewed in this context. It is essentially an attempt by a leading French intellectual to persuade his compatriots to alter their view of money. In Bruckner’s view, money should be treated as a serious subject rather than denigrated. He rejects the centuries of derision that literary figures have, he argues, heaped on to money and prosperity.

For instance, take his view on what he describes as the “soft Bolshevism” prevalent in France. It is common for leading political and cultural figures to condemn materialism, distrust the market and excoriate high finance. At the same time, he says, the poor are often venerated.

Such rhetoric may sound radical but Bruckner is right to argue that in some respects this egalitarian ethos is deeply conservative. The underlying message is that the working and middle classes should be ashamed to express great ambitions. Everyone should be willing to limit their material aspirations for the sake of society as a whole. This is a recipe for social stasis that inevitably favours those currently in positions of wealth.

Bruckner concludes that French anti-materialism amounts to a rejection of human progress. “When a people claims to renounce money and the benefits it provides, that is because it also wants to renounce history. And that proves that it no longer has confidence in itself.”

Bruckner is on weaker ground when he discusses the American attitude to wealth. Historically, it is true that the US has seen itself as the land of opportunity where anyone who works hard can achieve the American dream of prosperity. But he fails to see that in some respects the US has become more like France in that it has become uneasy with money.

Take, for example, the idea that “greed is good”. Bruckner describes this as the “American credo” as opposed to the French “cult of pleasures”. But he has apparently forgotten that the slogan was coined as part of an attack on the perceived excesses of US wealth.

“Greed is good” was the most memorable line of Gordon Gekko, a corporate raider, in Oliver Stone’s 1987 film Wall Street. Yet Stone’s goal was not to celebrate wealth but to warn of its potential dangers. Gekko was the villain of the piece. Stone is far from alone in voicing such criticism even in the US. Some 30 years on from the original film such views have become widespread. It is not that most Americans are opposed to wealth in principle but it often arouses anxiety.

Just consider the vast number of books and articles that warn of the dangers of excessive consumption. Too great a focus on accumulating wealth is said to lead to dangerous inequality, widespread misery and even to threaten the planet’s survival.

The rise of this critical attitude towards consumption also helps explain why the wealthy are keen to be seen promoting philanthropic initiatives. Many rich individuals are eager to rebut the charges made against them and show that they play a beneficial social role.

The US and France maintain distinct attitudes on many topics including wealth. But they have arguably converged to a greater extent than those on either side of the Atlantic would like to admit.

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