Recently, the Powerball lottery went over 1.4 billion dollars and yes, I’m playing too. I know it’s more likely than not that I’m just throwing a few dollars away on this ticket and that the winnings will go to someone else and I’m fine with that.
Even so, the prospect of that much money should really be an occasion for deep thought. I think nobody should ever enter a sweepstakes of any sort unless they’ve asked themselves what they’d do with the prize and given it a lot of deep reflection; otherwise you’ll just throw your money away playing any game of chance that comes your way.
I know a few things I would do with it right away. I’d pay off the combined debts of my household, then do some travel to places from past lives. I’d buy a sensible house and a car in Oregon and a sensible house and car in England. But I could probably do all of those things for under five million dollars; what about the rest of it?
The last life I can remember being particularly well-off ended more than 750 years ago, and so my perspective on wealth is informed by two competing threads of ethos.
One thread says that if I win I should reward a few good friends handsomely and live the good life together. I can be a patron to their art and music, pay their debts, give them a grant of land, manage my estate carefully so that I can continue to pay them well for the rest of our lives, and ask their total loyalty in return. That’s the thread that still remembers how we did it back in the old days; it was pure, unadulterated cronyism and for all its problems, most of the time it worked.
The other thread- the one informed by a twenty-first century ethos informed by post-Enlightenment notions of civic engagement and philanthropy- says that rather than helping a few good friends through splitting my wealth among cronies, I ought to use that money efficiently to help as many people as possible, whether they are friends or strangers. This is the thread that makes me want to set up charities to help low-income people in the queer community, or adults with developmental disabilities and mental illnesses escape the death by apathy that modern life offers. This is very personal for me because much of the time I and my partner have encountered so much difficulty in life that both of us believe should not exist. And if I borrow a page from Sartre’s ethics here, if I choose to behave in such a way that I think everyone ought to behave, then I ought to naturally do the most good for the most people, right?
But is it really better to house ten thousand people in miserable concrete high-rises, or a few good friends who have always been there for you in nice houses? If you help someone, isn’t it better to help a few people well than many people poorly? Modern attempts at housing charities and the like often see people put in dehumanizing, cramped, cheaply-built housing projects and I don’t want to build places of misery.
I’m also worried about the fact that the more strangers you help, the easier it is to be taken advantage of. The advantage of helping only a few people is that if someone tries to take advantage of you, all you have to do is cut them off from the gravy train. They either get mad but can’t (legally) do anything, or they behave themselves.
And yet, in this age of tremendous social isolation, how else can you fix the problems but by taking the chance to help strangers, even if it means running the risk of being taken advantage of?
I don’t intend to imply that these are my only two options of course. I just find the idea of using a series of cunning investments to turn the $500m or so I’d have left after taxes into a few hundred billion through a series of blue-chip investments. I could continue to grow my wealth and capital until I can buy the policies I want. And with what I’ve got left I could simply keep accumulating wealth for myself, for the sake of accumulating wealth. It’s what most billionaires do, after all. But I can’t see myself doing that; it feels entirely against my nature and every thread of ethos within me. Then again, who knows? Maybe the tendency I developed from being poor, to sit on money and keep my purse strings tight at all times, will stay with me. Learning to give away large portions of my money would be a new experience, and maybe I could never outgrow the tendency.
Even so, I’d like to think I could adapt better than that. If I don’t have the free will to go against learned behaviors, then what good am I as a person? We meet again, Monsieur Sartre…
Perhaps it’s lucky I’m unlikely to win; I think I have enough existential crises to manage at the moment. Thinking of it, wealth poses a serious philosophical dilemma. If you need it, you shouldn’t turn it down, but once you have it you no longer need it and then what do you do?
Still going to buy my ticket… just not without a lot of rumination.