Last week I wrote a post titled Tax Happiness: Inventors of Sauna Happier than Inventors of Polio Vaccine in which I posed the following two questions for fellow tax blogger and law professor James Maule:
- Why do you assume that a person having a self-interested life goal of maximing wealth is any less noble than a person having a self-interested life goal of creating a transcendent symphony?
- Why can’t “making a killing” be my art and composing a symphony be yours
On Friday, the Professor was kind enough to respond.
Here’s part of the Professor’s answers, but read the entire post to understand fully where Mr. Maule is coming from:
Turning now to the questions from Mr. Pappas, I respond to the first by explaining that although we don’t know why some people are obsessed with accumulating wealth beyond what is required for life, we do know that the obsessive pursuit of wealth generates a variety of life difficulties, dysfunctions, propensity toward unwise and even illegal behavior, intensification of other addictions, and a variety of other ills. In the long run, an individual’s pursuit of wealth harms society.
In contrast, those who put other values ahead of wealth accumulation for its own sake or for the sake of acquiring disproportionate power end up benefiting society, whether through unpaid volunteer work, dedication to underpaid careers such as nursing and hospice care, or even, I suppose, through the creation of a great symphony or work of art. A world filled with hospital aides, Red Cross volunteers, inner city mural artists, and minimum-wage-earning services workers suggests a more peaceful, nurturing planet than one filled with greedy, money-obsessed, wealth-accumulating power addicts adept at shifting cost onto others.
Question # 2:
There is nothing wrong per se with someone trying to turn “making a killing” into his or her art. The problem is that doing so is guaranteed to harm society. Is it possible to make a killing without imposing huge costs on others? Is it possible to make a killing without excessively harming the environment? Is it possible to make a killing without unduly putting the economic well-being and the security of nations at risk? Is it possible to make a killing without engaging in monopolistic or oligopolistic behavior? Is it possible to make a killing without riding on the backs of others? Is it possible to make a killing without undue infringement of the rights of others?
When I compared in my original post the wealth-creation artist to the symphony-creating artist I assumed that each would not pursue their art by engaging in immoral conduct.
Mr. Maule, on the other hand, begins with the premise that anyone who desires great wealth must be willing to harm others and the environment in order to achieve that end.
He doesn’t make the same assumption about the music composer.
Thus, if we were to accept Mr. Maule’s premise, the debate would be over: Of course the honorable composer is more noble than the dishonorable wealth-seeker.
But isn’t it possible that a composer is equally or more obsessive and ruthless in the pursuit of his or her art than is the wealth-seeker?
Mr. Maule doesn’t seem to admit that possibility yet the history books are replete with stories of great artistic talents who in pursuit of their art left everyone they came in contact with in emotional and financial ruin.
Picasso was a misogynist of the first order who rationalized his abusive superiority on the spurious grounds of artist privilege. Van Gogh cut his ear off for his art. And Hemingway blew his own brains out because he couldn’t make his prose (or something else?) sing any more.
Neither the wealth-seekers nor the symphony composers have a monopoly on decency and to suggest otherwise flies in the face of human experience.
Note, one could credibly argue that the pursuer of great wealth confers the following benefits on society that the creator of symphonies rarely does:
- Support of one’s own and extended family
- Creation of jobs
- Contribution to charity
- Payment of taxes
- Meeting demand for goods and services
Finally, Mr. Maule must know that historically many great artists have been funded by rich patrons. The very same types he castigates as obsessive, greedy and dysfunctional.
Without a Lorenzo de Medici there would have been no Michelangelo.