Column on The Unearned Wealth Trap

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-sequitur 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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