What is the cause of the terrible calamities which are now falling on the civilized world? Surely it lies in the fact that the economic development of mankind has outstripped the moral development. The nations of the world have grown richer without becoming wiser and juster in a corresponding degree. We all know that the possession of great riches is a dangerous thing—dangerous for the possessor and dangerous for his neighbors. We all know what the dangers are …[unless] the moral development of the man’s character keeps pace with the economic development of his wealth …

It is indisputable that morality, by which I mean justice and wisdom, has not advanced, anywhere, in the degree that is needed to deal justly and wisely with the enormous accession of riches which has suddenly fallen to the lot of the human race. Material prosperity has taken the world unawares; morally the nations were unprepared for it; some of them made ready for war, but none of them made ready for the greater dangers of peace. The nations have acquired all this wealth, but in the deepest sense they don’t know what to do with it; they don’t know how it ought to be handled; they don’t know how to make it a blessing, or even how to prevent it from being a curse. This disparity between the moral and the economic development is the prime cause of our present trouble.

As things now are—wealth advancing by leaps and bounds, justice and wisdom advancing at a snail’s pace—rich nations are bound to be quarrelsome nations …

I will call your attention to a simple, obvious, and unquestionable fact. The present world war is, in the main, a war between rich nations. It is not a war between nations who are fighting, like starving dogs, for the bare means of subsistence. With the exception of Serbia and Montenegro, who of course are not the principals, each of the belligerent powers possesses vast territories and vast accumulations of wealth. Judged by any reasonable standard of human satisfaction, each has within itself not only enough, but far more than enough, to provide for the wants of the inhabitants …

My contention is that vast accumulations of national wealth, so far from inclining nations to live at peace with one another, have, in the present backward state of international morality, precisely the opposite effect. The possession of great riches acts upon nations in the same way that we sometimes see it act upon individuals. Instead of making them contented with what they have, it makes them covetous to get more.


Originally titled "War and the Wealth of Nations"

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