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The Morality Of Money. Essay

1187 words - 5 pages

In reacting to the Enron scandal, many cultural commentators have been quick to recur to a favorite theme: the corrupting power of commerce.Here is a typical example, from the "Letters Column" of the New York Times: "Enron's collapse was a product of the culture of greed, dishonesty, ethical blindness and wishful thinking that has characterized much of corporate America since the advent of the Reagan administration" (John S. Koppel, January 22, 2002). In this view, Enron is simply the representative of corrupt, "free market" capitalism. And the author's reaction, like the reactions of many editorialists and commentators, is disgust with "greed" and contempt for the idea that money-making might be moral. The Los Angeles Times's editorial cartoonist, Jeff Danziger, captured the feeling perfectly by depicting Enron as a house of prostitution, whose parlor is decorated with statues and pictures of naked and scantily clad women holding bags marked with the dollar sign. The message was clear: Dollars are money; money symbolizes capitalism; capitalism is immoral.Danziger is right that money symbolizes capitalism, but what should we think of this symbol? Ayn Rand's answer was unequivocal: "Money demands of you the highest virtues," she wrote in Atlas Shrugged. Yet her view seems incongruous in light of the moral shortcomings of certain businessmen, wealthy heirs, and corporations, of which Enron is a particularly noisome instance. Under the circumstances, it may be useful to re-examine Objectivism's view that money is a badge of nobility, a view of money that underlies the economic commentaries in this magazine.In Atlas Shrugged, one of the heroes, Francisco d'Anconia, gives a speech on the meaning of money. In it he says: "The words 'to make money' hold the essence of human morality." His reason is that one makes money through production and trade. And that is the noblest way to live: as a producer who creates value and then gains values from others through voluntary exchange.That is just what people normally do in a free market. Money does not itself create anything, but because it is the medium of exchange it makes possible the specialized production and long-distance commerce that are the basis of our advanced and bountiful civilization. This is why, in the abstract, it is a symbol of justice, achievement, and progress.Objectivists thus defend the moral worth of making money because we admire the productive, rational, independent man or woman. But this does not mean we equate wealth with moral worth, especially not in the mixed economic system we have today. That should be apparent from the various wealthy villains Rand portrays in her novels, such as the architect Peter Keating in The Fountainhead and the railroad heir James Taggart in Atlas Shrugged.Still, the goodness of wealth is only a presumption. An heir whose business skill amounts to hiring a responsible private banker is not necessarily evil, but once we ask how he earned his money, we...

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