Wealth usually refers to money and property. It is
the abundance of objects of value and also the state of having
accumulated these objects. The use of the word itself assumes
some socially-accepted means of identifying objects, land,
or money as "belonging to" someone, i.e. a broadly
accepted notion of property and a means of protection of that
property that can be invoked with minimal (or, ideally, no)
effort and expense on the part of the owner. Concepts of wealth
vary among societies.
The Anthropological view of Wealth
Anthropology characterizes societies, in part, based on a
society's concept of wealth, and the institutional structures
and power used to protect this wealth. Several types are defined
below. They can be viewed as an evolutionary progression.
A rudimentary notion of wealth
Great Apes seem to have notions of "turf" and control
of food-gathering ranges, but it is questionable whether they
understand this as a form of wealth. They acquire and use
limited tools but these objects typically do not change, are
simple to re-create, and therefore are unlikely to be seen
as objects of wealth. Gorillas seem to have the capacity to
recognize and protect pets and children, but this seems less
an idea of wealth than of family.
The interpersonal concept of wealth
Hominoids, including all human ancestors, seem to have started
with incipient ideas of wealth, similar to that of the great
apes. But as tools, clothing, and other mobile infrastructural
capital became important to survival (especially in hostile
biomes), ideas such as the inheritance of wealth, political
positions, leadership, and ability to control group movements
(to perhaps reinforce such power) emerged. Neanderthal societies
had elaborate funerary rites and cave painting which implies
at least a notion of shared assets that could be spent for
social purposes, or preserved for social purposes. Wealth
may have been collective.
Wealth as the accumulation of non-necessities
Humans back to and including the Cro-Magnon seem to have had
clearly defined rulers and status hierarchies. Digs in Russia
have revealed elaborate funeral clothing on a pair of children
buried there over 35,000 years ago. This indicates a considerable
accumulation of wealth by some individuals or families. The
high artisan skill also suggest the capacity to direct specialized
labor to tasks that are not of any utility to the group's
Wealth as control of arable land
Irrigation and urbanization, especially in ancient Sumer and
later Egypt, are thought to have triggered a shift that unified
the ideas of wealth and control of land and agriculture. To
Feed a large stable population, it was possible and necessary
to achieve universal cultivation and city-state protection.
The notion of the state and the notion of war are said to
have emerged at this time. Tribal cultures were formalized
into what we would call feudal systems, and many obligations
were assumed by monarchy and related aristocracy. Protection
of infrastructural capital built up over generations became
critical: city walls, irrigation systems, sewage systems,
aqueducts, buildings, all impossible to replace within a single
generation, and thus a matter of social survival to maintain.
The social capital of entire societies was often defined in
terms of its relation to infrastructural capital ( e.g. castles
or forts or an allied monastery, cathedral or temple), and
natural capital, (i.e. the land that supplied locally grown
food). Agricultural economics continues these traditions in
the analyses of modern agricultural policy and related ideas
of wealth, e.g. the ark of taste model of agricultural wealth.
The capitalist notion of wealth
Industrialization emphasized the role of technology. Many
jobs were automated. Machines replaced some workers while
other workers became more specialized. Labor specialization
became critical to economic success. However, physical capital,
as it came to be known, consisting of both the natural capital
(raw materials from nature) and the infrastructural capital
(facilitating technology), became the focus of the analysis
of wealth. Adam Smith saw wealth creation as the combination
of materials, labor, land, and technology in such a way as
to capture a profit. The theories of David Ricardo, John Locke,
John Stuart Mill, and later, Karl Marx, in the 18th century
and 19th century built on these views of wealth that we now
call classical economics and Marxist economics.
Other Concepts of Wealth
Michel Foucault commented that the concept of Man as an aggregate
did not exist before the 18th century. The shift from the
analysis of an individual's wealth to the concept of an aggregation
of all men is implied in the concepts of political economy
and then economics. This transition took place as a result
of a cultural bias inherent in the Enlightenment. Wealth was
seen as an objective fact of living as a human being in a
Some people believe wealth is a zero-sum game, where there
is a limited amount of wealth and some must lose in order
for others to gain. As a result they are concerned primarily
with issues of wealth distribution rather than wealth creation.
Others believe that wealth can be readily created. They feel
that wealth is not a fixed amount to be distributed. To most
of these people, organizing a society so as to optimize the
growth of wealth is more important than distribution issues.
Many of these people believe in some version of the trickle-down
theory in which newly created wealth "trickles down"
to all strata of society, thereby making the question of distribution
One's attitude towards this issue affects the design of the
social or economic system that one prefers.
The non-normative concept of wealth
Neoclassical economics tries to be non-normative for the most
part, to be objective and free of value statements. If it
is successful, then wealth would be defined in such a way
that it would not be preconceived to be either positive or
negative. This objective has not always been the case. In
prior eras wealth was assumed to be a set of means of persuasion.
It was often seen as self-interested arguments by the powerful
explaining why they should remain in power. In The Prince,
Niccolo Machiavelli had commented in that earlier era on the
prudent use of wealth, and the need to tolerate some cruelty
and vice in the use of it, in order to maintain appearances
of strength and power.
Jane Jacobs in the 1960s and 70s offered the observation
that there were two different moral syndromes that were common
attitudes to wealth and power, and that the one more associated
with guardianship did in fact require a degree of ostentacious
conspicuous consumption if only to impress others.
This logic is almost entirely absent from neoclassical economics,
which in its extreme form argues for the abolition of any
political economy apart from the service markets wherein favours
may be bought and sold at will, including political ones -
the so-called political choice theory popular in the U.S.A..
While it is entirely likely that such assumptions apply in
the subcultures that dominate modern discourse on technical
economics and especially macroeconomics, the less technical
notions of wealth and power that are implied in the older
theories of economics and ideas of wealth, still continue
as daily facts of life.
Non financial wealth
The 21st century view is that many definitions of wealth can
exist and continue to co-exist. Some people talk about measuring
the more general concept of Measuring well-being. This is
a difficult process but many believe it possible - human development
theory being devoted to this. Although these alternative measures
of wealth exist, they tend to be overshadowed by, and influenced
by, the dominant money supply and banking system. For more
on the modern notions of wealth and their interaction see
the article on political economy.
The Creation of Wealth
Wealth is created through several means.
-Natural resources can be harvested and sold to those who
-Material can be changed into something more valuable through
proper application of labor and equipment.
-Better methods also create wealth by allowing faster creation
-Ideas create wealth by allowing it to be created faster or
with new methods.
For example, consider our early ancestors. Building a house
from trees created something of greater value for the builder.
Hunting and firewood created food and fed a growing family.
Agriculture converted labor into more food and resources.
Continuing use of resources and effort has allowed many descendants
to own much more than that first house.
This is still true today. It is more obvious to those working
with physical material than to a service worker or knowledge
worker. A cubicle worker may not be aware in how many ways
their work is creating something which is of more value to
their employer than the amount that employer paid to produce
it. This profit creates wealth for the owners of the organization.
The process also provides income for employees, and suppliers,
and it makes the continued existence of the organization possible.
The Limits to Wealth Creation
There is a debate in the economics literature, usually referred
to as the limits to growth debate in which the ecological
impact of growth and wealth creation is considered. Many of
the wealth creating activities mentioned above (cutting down
trees, hunting, farming) have an impact on the environment
around us. Sometimes the impact is positive (for example,
hunting when herd populations are high) and sometimes the
impact is negative (for example, hunting when herd populations
Most researchers feel that sustained environmental impacts
can have an effect on the whole ecosystem. They claim that
the accumulated impacts on the ecosystem put a theoretical
limit on the amount of wealth that can be created. They draw
on archeology to cite examples of cultures that they claim
have disappeared because they grew beyond the ability of their
ecosystems to support them.
Others are more optimistic. They claim that although localized
environmental impacts may occur, large scale ecological effects
are either minor (in terms of magnitude) or non-existent.
They sometimes claim that if these global scale ecological
effects exist, human ingenuity will always find ways of adapting
to them. To them, there is no limit to the amount of growth
or wealth that this planet will sustain.
Restricting the limits to the surface of Earth also restricts
potential growth and the effects upon this planet.
The Distribution of wealth
Societies have different opinions about wealth distribution
and of the obligations related to wealth, but from the era
of the tribal society to the modern era, there have been means
of moderating the acquisition and use of wealth.
In extremely ecologically rich areas such as those inhabited
by the Haida in the Cascadia Pacific East Rim ecoregion, traditions
like potlatch kept wealth relatively evenly distributed, requiring
leaders to buy continued status and respect with giveaways
of wealth to the poorer members of society. Such traditions
make what are today often seen as government responsibilities
into matters of personal honour.
In modern societies, the tradition of philanthropy exists.
Large donations from funds created by wealthy individuals
are highly visible, although small contributions by many people
offer a wide variety of support within a society. The existence
of organizations which survive on donations indicate that
a society has some level of philanthropy.
In todays societies much wealth distribution and redistribution
is the result of government policies and programs. Government
policies like the progressivity or regressivity of the tax
system redistribute wealth to the poor or the rich respectively.
Government programs like disaster relief transfer
wealth to people that have suffered a loss due to natural
disaster. Social security transfers wealth from the young
to the old. Engaging in a war transfers wealth to certain
sectors of society. Public education transfers wealth to families
with children in these schools. Public road construction transfers
wealth from people that do not use the roads to those people
that do (and to those that build the roads). Some people resent
having to contribute to some of these programs and disparagingly
label them social engineering. The mere existence of government,
transfers wealth from people in the private sector to people
in the public sector. Contrariwise, the existence of a private
sector transfers wealth from people in the public sector to
people in the private sector
This phenomenon can be understood within a broad theory of
political economy, where tradeoffs between means of protection,
persuasion and production, and valuations of different styles
of capital, are described. Simply put, if the rich do not
at least once in a while give away, on their own free will,
at least a small part of their richness to the poor, the poor
would be much more likely to rebel against the rich.
The concepts of owning land and accumulating wealth in the
form of land, were and are difficult to characterize in Enlightenment
terms, bearing more resemblance to modern ideas of bioregionalism
or ecological stewardship or natural capital. Ecological economics
continues these traditions.