The Tenth Commandment and Crabs in a Barrel

Former NBA star Charles Barkley recently drew national attention with his candid comments referring to the envy between “successful blacks” and “non-intelligent blacks” as being like “crabs in a barrel”. Mr. Barkley was referring to an African proverb -- “Put one crab in a pot and it will escape. Put two crabs in a pot and neither will escape.”  

The point of this proverb is that envy destroys everyone. Whatever your reaction to Barkley’s perception of an issue in his community, envy and covetousness are actually national problems. Americans have difficulty remembering, much less keeping, the 10th Commandment: Thou Shalt Not Covet.

This often-overlooked, last of the Ten Commandments impacts not only consumer behavior, it is reshaping federal policy and poisoning American culture along with its economic future.

Fundamental to the Judeo-Christian principles that founded this nation was an understanding that people were uniquely created for a purpose and commanded to make something of themselves and the world they were given. All were encouraged to be fruitful and multiply, subduing the uncivilized earth, leaving it better and more developed than they found it. All were instructed to be content with what their own hands produced, not looking over the fence to see what they could get from their neighbor.

In the Old World and among centralized economies, aristocratic strangleholds on wealth and opportunity limited individual advancement. Education, ownership of property, and access to markets were controlled as a matter of policy and privilege. But America offered that uniquely hopeful chance to rise as far as one’s skills could go. Coupled with the freedom to own property, this unleashed an economic juggernaut.

Such revolutionary opportunity sparked an exodus, as people fled communist regimes, socialist controls, paternalistic constructs, and greedy dictatorships for a level playing field allowing for meritocracy. A distinctly faith-based concept – “hard work yields a profit” -- was the inspiration for economic growth that stunned the world as liberty, justice, creativity and hard work forged to create an unprecedented rise in personal and national wealth.

But today’s cultural leaders argue not for a level playing field of opportunity, but equal outcomes without regard to effort or ability. Political and economic leaders talk about people’s resources as jealously as feuding relatives at the reading of a will.

Having traveled extensively around the world working on issues of personal finance, economics, and poverty alleviation, I now come home and easily identify the toxic covetousness of elitist, socialist, and communist thought that are becoming common here. Success is not celebrated but scrutinized to determine whether the individual should be allowed to prosper, and how much the government might allow them to keep.

Coveting the possessions of others becomes toxic when the power of governments is engaged in attempting to redress what is labeled as unfair -- personal success and its rewards. When governments take for themselves the power to decide whose accomplishments are acceptable, the proverbial Pandora’s box has been opened.

Taxes become a governmental weapon, with measurable negative consequences. For example, U.S. population shifts are reshaping America as people flee from high-tax states to lower-tax ones. The Northeast, once a political powerhouse, has experienced a 40 percent drop in congressional representation as people moved south in response to escalating taxes, according to a report by the American Legislative Exchange Council.

Certainly, whole industries exist to stir up envy and desire among consumers. U.S. advertisers spent more that $171 billion on paid media in 2013, according to eMarketer. That kind of bombardment has an impact. It often encourages massive consumer debt and strangled family finances, as people go too far, too fast,

Our culture can fixate on the good life, with its perfect home, car, clothes, jewelry, and even relationships, creating an environment in which success is measured against the gains of others. Social unrest can occur when people are almost taunted by levels of consumption that few can achieve.

A thriving economic system celebrates achievement and seeks to allow all people equal access to create for their own good and the good of others. But it must be rooted in the belief that people should be content with what they have and be able to congratulate those who have more. Remove this heart attitude, and the middle class will disappear.

America needs to reflect on the 10th commandment to move from envy to effort, reviving the spirit of creativity and of earned achievement that builds self-respect. We need to escape from the energy and talent drain of crabs fighting to hold each other back.

Consider this counter cultural entreaty: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” Without this key guideline to restrain attitudes, an economy will divide between the “haves” and the “have-nots”. Strife will ensue. Economic power will become centralized.  Dictatorships will be spawned.

God help us from going down that path, God help us to remember the Tenth Commandment.

Chuck Bentley is CEO of Crown and author of “The Worst Financial Mistakes in the Bible And How You Can Avoid Them” as well host of the nationally syndicated radio feature, My MoneyLife™, follow him, @chuckbentley.

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