The Ethics of Expenditure.
A couple of conversations about money have interested me lately. The first was a twitter conversation I had with @sciliz, and the second is going on in the comments over at Doc Becca’s place. Essentially, both conversations were about the ethics of spending more money than is required on things like food and clothing. It’s not something I’ve ever put an extraordinary amount of thought into. But it will surprise no one who knows me that I am one of the people who spends more than is necessary on clothes and food.
I come from privilege. There’s no question about that. And from more privilege than is already inherent in being a white, male American. My family is one of reasonable means, which allowed me to graduate from school without debt. I have had just about every advantage in life that one can have. I try to be conscious about that. I try to be magnanimous. I try to be aware of how my fortunes have colored my perceptions. And I’ve traveled to some of the poorest places on earth, to gain perspective. Recognizing and doing those things, I hope, allows me to understand the world better than isolating myself in the gilded ivory tower.
But I cannot agree with the attitude that spending more than is necessary on staples is unethical. In fact, I think it many cases it may be preferable to spending money on cheaply made, mass-produced goods. Yes, it represents privilege. But it also represents redistribution. When a person buys a $1,000 suit jacket (as was the example in my conversation on twitter), that money doesn’t evaporate. The salespeople are usually commissioned. The clothes are generally made by artisans with good jobs. When a person buys a $45 suit jacket from Walmart, it’s probably made in a sweatshop in China or Bangladesh. The salespeople make minimum wage, usually without benefits, certainly without commission.
Many people truly benefit from the sale of a high-end product. Cheaply-made, mass-produced products support a system of exploitation and extraction that primarily benefits people like the Waltons.
Now, there’s a lot of real estate between those extremes. And $1,000 suit jacket doesn’t even represent an extreme! And yes, there’s certainly a bit of justification. But I don’t believe that people need to apologize for spending the money they earn. The idea that the only ethical things to do with money are to subsist, prepare for emergencies, and give it away is absurd I think. There is nothing wrong with accepting what people will pay to do your job, even if it is a lot. There is nothing wrong with spending your income so long as you are prudent with your reserves.
And I do believe a bit in noblesse oblige. People who’ve been fortunate enough to find themselves with high incomes and large pots of wealth certainly do have an obligation to be charitable. The great charitable foundations set up by famous families are important, but more important is that individuals are charitable with the people in their lives. We all need to be generous with time and treasure as we can.
But the ethics of how we choose to spend our money is far more complex than “expensive things are bad and cheap things are good.” Ideally, we could know how the products we buy are made, and support those that make reasonable profits while paying their workers well. That have good corporate consciences and do good in their communities. But there’s often no way to tell what those things are. I propose we are guided by our own consciences. And that we recognize that how others choose to comport themselves financially may not be malicious or thoughtless, but the result of a calculus that is simply different from our own, not less moral.