05/03/2006 02:25 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

It's Not Human Nature, It's a Disease?

General Motors recently reported that during the rapid rise in gas prices sales of Hummers almost doubled. This surprised and shocked some people, but rang a familiar bell with me. Many years ago, during a severe water shortage in my own city, citizen conservation efforts reduced water consumption 20% and averted a crisis, despite the fact that water usage in the wealthiest part of town increased 50%.

People who respond in this peculiar way to civic crises are what I call 'wealth addicts'. A shortage of gas or water has the same effect on them as the threat of a diet has on the obese--it makes them want to consume even more than usual.

Of course not all Hummer owners are wealth addicts. And not all wealthy people waste water or gas during a shortage. But as anyone who has worked with non-profits knows, only a small number of rich and generous benefactors are responsible for most charitable donations, while the majority of the rich give little or nothing at all.

Those who devote their entire lives to amassing or retaining huge sums of money are neurotically addicted, trying to fill an inner void with money. And since such psychic voids cannot be filled with money--any more than with alcohol, tobacco, cocaine, food, or sex--even a billion dollars doesn't satisfy them.

A friend once said of H. L. Hunt--then the richest man in the world--that he "always felt poor in his own mind", a common trait among famous billionaires. Yet it has always been hard for Americans to see the hugely wealthy as neurotic, insecure, deprived-feeling people. It seems to fly in the face of our culture, which tends to look positively on greed.

But healthy people do not require a billion dollars to feel adequate and secure and worthwhile. Money may or may not buy happiness--it can certainly buy freedom from many kinds of unhappiness. But after a certain point money no longer fills any material need or even desire. All it can buy is symbols--status, fame, power, or more money--a string of zeros poured into a black hole of insecurity.

What's unique about wealth addiction is that it's the only pursuit in our society for which excess is not only tolerated but encouraged. In all others we make a distinction between indulgence and over-indulgence--between enjoyment and abuse, between free choice and inner compulsion.

The test of whether or not a person is addicted is his or her ability to decide how much is enough. We say people who can't stop drinking when they've had enough are alcoholics. We say people who can't stop eating when they've had enough are gluttons. We say people who can't stop checking to see if the door is locked are obsessive-compulsives. But people with a billion dollars who can't stop trying to make more we call successful.

This anomaly is based on the false assumption that we are all wealth addicts, and that the billionaires among us are just more successful at it. But most Americans are not addicted to money. They are willing to work for less money at a job they they enjoy, or a job closer to home, or a job that performs some useful function in society. They are willing to make less money in order to spend more time with their families. They would rather have the leisure to enjoy what they have than spend their lives accumulating more. And the less money people have the higher the percentage of it they're willing to donate to charitable causes.

All addicts cause suffering to those around them, but no addiction causes as much suffering as wealth addiction. During the Civil War thousands of men died because of defective goods sold to the Union Army--sales that created some of America's greatest early fortunes. For when a disaster occurs, while normal people are looking for ways to help out, wealth addicts are looking for money-making opportunities. Wars, plagues, depressions, floods--all have served as the foundation of some of the world's great fortunes (see my Wealth Addiction or Kenneth Lamott's The Moneymakers). And as the most severe addicts find novel ways to feed their habits, the non-addicted members of society have to work harder at socially useful jobs, for less and less pay, just to satisfy their own realistic material needs.

People can get rich for all kinds of reasons--talent, popularity, an invention, an oil strike--but wealth addicts get as rich as they are because they're single-mindedly obsessed with money. A first step toward achieving a healthy, human-centered economy would be to recognize this psychological sickness for what it is.