Saturday, August 09, 2003

I'm also home from visiting Hearst Castle today after a three-day trip that made me think that Cambria would be a good place for a honeymoon (though I still might hold out for either Hawaii or Disneyworld, given my affordable druthers). If you're not familiar with Hearst Castle, it was the dream home of newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst, one of the great early twentieth-century American millionaires, and his home in San Simeon is fabulous. I mean, simply phenomenal ... heck, just the outdoor pool is phenomenal. The decor isn't all to my taste but that is just one jaw-dropping estate.

I'm never quite sure what to think of Hearst Castle, really. I mean, on the one hand, there's kind of an urge to sputter in outrage that anybody should be living in such opulence in the middle of the Great Depression. On the other hand, I'm not really sure what to fault him for. Was he using his money irresponsibly? I don't think I'd say that of a man who owned 92 businesses and woke up at 5:00 AM every morning to run them. It's not a question of whether or not he deserved the money, or whether or not he "earned" it. Hearst was certainly doing his part to build up the American economy. Money is like heat - it doesn't exist unless it's being transferred between people. That's what causes depressions, after all: people stop spending money. A hearty exchange of money makes for a hearty economy, and a hearty economy makes for places where most poor people have clean, running hot and cold water, microwave ovens, and televisions.

Nor can I really object to people like Hearst having so much more money than the rest of the nation (or the world). For one thing, distributing the nation's (or the world's) wealth is sort of a nonsensical idea. That sort of talk treats "wealth" as if it's a commodity - as if you could distribute wealth the same way you distribute acres of land. But it seems to me that "wealth" is not that sort of thing at all. Wealth is basically the same thing as value. If something has a high "price" it has a high value. And value is of course what determines price. Take the case of the Faberge egg. To some people an original Faberge is worth tens of thousands of dollars. To me it's worth zero. If I am "wealthy," my wealth consists in a certain number of people valuing me (or my services) a certain amount. That may be unfair, but that is the way it is. And in any case, I see no injustice in "unfairness." If Jenny wants help with her stats homework, I am useless to her (value zero) whereas Archimedes is of great use to her (value nonzero). Is that fair? Not really ... but so what?

And of course I can't complain that Hearst lives (well, lived) in luxury while many live in great hardship, because that is to say that it is better to live in luxury than hardship. And that is not true at all. When Christians are told to rejoice in hardships, and when we are told to search, like Paul, for the secret to being content in all circumstances, the God who tells us these things means them. It is not good for a man to be very wealthy (c.f. the young rich man who came to Jesus); it is not good for a man to be very poor. But of course it is not bad for a man to be very wealthy (God did not make Solomon wealthy as punishment) any more than it is bad for a man to be very poor (it was not bad for Paul to be destitute - or Jesus either, for that matter). We may say that we would prefer luxury to hardship, but that is only because we are very foolish people. For we recognize all the time that money will not make you happy, and that happiness comes from within, regardless of circumstance - truly regardless of circumstance, not "regardless of luxury." What we really want is to feel that we are worthwhile people doing worthwhile work, content with our lot and satisfied that love and are loved. And of course if a man thinks that he can achieve that through the presence or absence of wealth - or if he imagines that he can bestow that upon his fellow man by bestowing or taking away wealth - he is a very silly fellow.

Where does this leave charity? I am not honestly sure - but I doubt very much that the person who admonished his pupils, "the poor shall always be with you" seriously meant for them to create a system where the only poor people are lazy slobs. In the first place, God does not always give people their just deserts this side of death. That is one of the things we love about him - for if he were to be fair instead of just we would all be dead, and living out a very unhappy death at that. But more importantly, it seems to me that God's admonition to look after the poor was not an admonition to get rid of them. I imagine that that would be rather like asking the French resistance to eject the Germans. That is a job properly left to the actual invasion force. I personally suspect that this has to do with love, which is something that is not of moral value to the receiver but is nevertheless of great value to the receiver - and of moral value to the giver. But I am not really sure of much in this regard, other than that we should not give an answer that is tantamount to saying that it is morally inferior for a person to be destitute than not. This may make charity one of those things that look morally arbitrary from the human perspective. But many such things are of immeasurable value to humans all the same - and the one who designed the human being in those seemingly morally arbitrary ways is not limited to the human perspective.

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