Why People Wish to be Rich

Bertrand Arthur William Russell, 3rd Earl Russell, OM, FRS, was a Welsh-English philosopher, historian, logician, mathematician, social reformer, pacifist, and prominent atheist.

He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1950 “in recognition of his varied and significant writings in which he champions humanitarian ideals and freedom of thought.”

The following except is from Russell’s Sceptical Essays (1938):

Why People Wish to be Rich – mainly in order to impress our neighbours

“Why do we, in Europe or America, in fact, almost all of us, desire to increase our incomes? It may seem, at first sight, as though material goods were what we desire. But, in fact, we desire these mainly in order to impress our neighbours. When a man moves into a larger house in a more genteel quarter, he reflects that ‘better’ people will call on his wife, and some unprosperous cronies of former days can be dropped. In every big city, whether of Europe or of America, houses in some districts are more expensive than equally good houses in other districts, merely because they are more fashionable. One of the most powerful of all our passions is the desire to be admired and respected. As things stand, admiration and respect are given to the man who seems to be rich. This is the chief reason why people wish to be rich. The actual goods purchased by their money play quite a secondary part.

Take, for example, a millionaire who cannot tell one painting from another, but has acquired a gallery of old masters by the help of experts. The pleasure he derives from his pictures is the thought that others know how much they have cost. All this might be different, and has been different in many societies. In aristocratic epochs, such as Ancient Rome or Sparta men were admired for their birth into the military caste. In some circles in Paris, men are admired for their artistic or literary excellence, strange as it may seem to some Americans. In a German university, a man may actually be admired for his learning in physics or chemistry. In India saints are admired; in China, sages. The study of these differing societies shows the correctness of our analysis, for in all of them we find a large percentage of men who are indifferent to money so long as they have enough to keep alive on, but are keenly desirous of the merits by which, in their environment, respect is to be won.

The importance of these facts lies in this, that the modern desire for wealth is not inherent in human nature, and could be destroyed by different social institutions. If, by law, we all had exactly the same income, we should have to seek some other way of being superior to our neighbours, and most of our present craving for material possessions would cease. Moreover, since this craving is in the nature of a competition, it only brings happiness when we outdistance a rival, to whom it brings correlative pain. A general increase of wealth gives no competitive advantage, and therefore brings no competitive happiness. There is, of course, some pleasure derived from the enjoyment of goods purchased, but, as we have seen, this is a very small part of what makes us desire wealth. And in so far as our desire is competitive, no increase of human happiness as a whole comes from increase of wealth, whether general or particular.“

Bertrand Russell, Sceptical Essays (1938), Essay XI: Machines and Emotions, p. 66-7