Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Unearned Wealth Trap

Tibor R. Machan

Sometimes defenders of human liberty put their case badly and one such instance is when they defend the right to private property by identifying all expropriation or extortion as the taking of earned wealth. But it isn't a matter of whether the wealth was earned or not--quite a lot of one's wealth, the benefits one enjoys in life, belong to one even if one hasn't earned these.

Surely it is not even possible to figure out how much of what one has is earned, how much one came by through luck or accident--even in the market place sometimes there are windfall profits or earnings, as when someone sells his or her labor for big bucks yet it took little effort to provide it. Indeed, when one finds a bargain one would have paid much more money for, one is getting something extra, beyond what one has earned. Some artists, for example, sell works that took just a tiny bit of effort for huge sums and many of us work at jobs we love and would do even if we were paid less then we are. Beautiful people often get paid big bucks to appear on covers of magazines or just adorn something in a commercial. It is convoluted to claim they all earned this as if they had done hard labor to get the goodies.

So if one rests one's case for private property rights on whether the owners actually earned their wealth or resources, much of what people actually do own will appear not to be rightly theirs and there for others to claim for themselves.

Fact is, we all have stuff we just ran across, stuff that we obtained simply because of being somewhere at a lucky time or being born into a hard working or lucky family. And yet the goods that come with this luck are all ours by right, no one else's. If the opposite were true, other people could rip off our good fortunes with impunity. Any wealth we got without strictly earning it could then be construed as public property, available for others to confiscate from us. Any money we get for just being lucky would then turn into unowned resource and others could take it for themselves and trying to hang on to it would make the owners some kind of thief.

No. Even if you have what you have by sheer luck, others have no authority to take it from you. It is what is called in logic a non-sequitor to deny the point--it doesn't follow from the fact that my pretty smile gains me fame and fortune that others may take this from me, not by a long shot.

For one, that kind of outlook would make slaves of us all. People could just take any benefit we enjoy that we were born with, our talents, our attributes that are popular with others and bring wealth to us as a result. Why should it be these others rather than the original lucky ones who have the authority to use and dispose of the wealth that's come by through fortune? No reason at all. Those others who claim a share of our wealth because we came by it through luck have no leg to stand on since we didn't promise other people that they could have such wealth, the wealth we didn't earn.

Now it may appear to be a plausible idea that if one hasn't earned his or her wealth, this means others may have it but it isn't true. What makes it plausible is all the talk about how one's property involves what one has earned, worked hard to obtain. But that idea is wrong. So it follows that the belief is false that such unearned wealth is available to others, however much they might like or even need it. (After all, if one didn't enjoy the luck--say, by not having been born at all--others couldn't even imagine getting it for themselves!)

The bottom line is that what one has a right to is one's life, one's liberty, and the property that arises from these whether come by some hard way or easy. Otherwise we would all be at the mercy of other people who see fit to intrude on us at their pleasure. But they haven't the moral and should not have the legal authority to do such a thing, however tempted they are to do so.

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