The paradox of wealth and power

FROM FAR AND NEAR - Ruben Almendras - The Freeman

The recent demise of prominent Filipino wealthy individuals like the Gokongweis, Bong Tan, CDO’s Ong, and others, and the high-profile power push by political leaders like Trump, Xi, Putin, and Erdogan, brings to mind the meaning of wealth, power, and the purpose of life. People always wonder if they have lived or are living useful and happy lives, or if their long or short lives had meaning and satisfaction. There’s always the fascination and aspiration with the lives of the rich, famous, and powerful by the majority who live ordinary lives, if they would be happier if they live such lives. This is the paradox.

A paradox is a statement or a situation that leads to an absurd conclusion. It could also be a desirable trait or objective that will lead to an undesirable outcome. In the case of wealth and power, while many people desire them, they are not really sure if it will bring them more happiness and peace. In fact, if you just follow the advice you receive as text messages, tweets, or emails that we are constantly getting, happiness and contentment can only be achieved by living simple, materially modest lives. And yet we see all the time how politicians/government officials and business people fight tooth and nail to be more powerful and wealthy.

Some years back, there was a US study on the correlation between annual income and the perceived happiness of income earners. It was the conclusion that beyond an annual income of $240,000 a year, the incremental satisfaction was less, than when they were earning in the range of $60,000 to $180,000. In economic terms this is understandable as this, fits into “the law of diminishing returns”. Beyond a certain volume, any additional increment or improvement will generate less than the proportionate profits. The profit line will curve downward beyond a certain point, so micro-economists will always try to determine this optimum point, which is the equilibrium point. This is also true in physics and geometry, and it is called the “ballistic path”. Due to friction in the atmosphere, the ascent of a bullet or a rocket tapers off the higher/farther it gets. In Geometry, it is called “slope”, when the rise is lesser than the run.

This is probably the same with wealth and power, the initial surge in wealth and power are more satisfying and happier than the later accumulations. Beyond a certain level of income and material possessions, the marginal increase in happiness will not be commensurate to the efforts expended to acquire them. If one is unable to determine the optimum or deflection point, then happiness tapers off or starts to go down. One has to allocate more time on their possessions and earn more and have less time for family and relationships. Author Henry David Thoreau once said, you become a slave to your possessions.

This same is also applicable to power. There will be the moment when the time and effort that political leaders spend to retain, consolidate or increase their power will become burdensome and no longer enjoyable. If you look at the problems of Israel’s Netanyahu, China’s Xi, Trump, Turkey’s Erdogan, UK’s Johnson and many political leaders now, you can probably imagine their sleepless nights with their problems and burden of responsibility.

Yet, we need these entrepreneurial wealthy people and political leaders to improve the economy/create jobs and to govern the countries and society. This is the other “paradox”. The resolutions of these paradoxes are in the moral and ethical dimensions.  The wealthy and powerful are to be or to become morally responsible people who use their wealth and power for the good of the people and society. Eventually, natural law and God’s law will prevail.

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