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Why it is NOT true that rich people OUGHT to be rich and poor people poor

i.e., Why Have "From Each According to Ability, to Each According to Need"* Equality?


[To read why "some rich and some poor" means treating people like dirt, click here]

[To read HOW the economy can work with no rich an no poor, click here]

September 2014



The rulers of our society today work very hard to persuade us that some people ought to be rich and others poor, that this kind of inequality is right and proper.


Most people disagree, as a question of simple moral right and wrong. Most people believe the following:


All who contribute reasonably according to ability should equally own and enjoy the benefits of the earth’s resources and the wealth that we produce by working together, with nobody being rich or poor.


The children of a janitor should enjoy the same standards of education, healthy food, quality health care, comfortable living space, quality clothing, leisure time, fun vacations, healthy and attractive environment, as the children of a doctor or the children of Bill Gates or of anybody else.


Elsewhere on this website we discuss how egalitarianism works and how it solves the biggest problems we face, and even how it has resulted in increased productivity in Spain when it was essentially the social system for much of that country from 1936-9.


But here we focus on the moral rightness of having no rich and no poor, by identifying and refuting moral arguments that are commonly made in defense of inequality.


The arguments for inequality--for why some should be rich and some should be poor—have changed over the centuries, and they are all unpersuasive. What are they?


#1.  God wills it.


People have claimed all sorts of things are “God’s will,” but most people to their credit know better. That’s why we don’t believe in the “Divine Right of Kings” anymore, even though centuries ago this was what gave royalty legitimacy. Who still believes that a monarch is not subject to any human authority and derives the right to rule directly from God?


In the Bible, Romans 13, it is written that Paul said, “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.” Paul said this because he wanted the early Christians to avoid getting into a fight with the Roman Empire. But it doesn’t follow that monarchs rule by the will of God, even if James VI of Scotland (later King James I of England), for obvious reasons of self-interest, said it did. It was this same King James who commanded the translation of the Bible known as the King James version in 1611.


#2. Some people are just inherently better and hence more deserving of wealth than other people.


This argument is the one that justified aristocrats and slave owners and such people owning wealth produced by peasants and slaves. Who still buys this nonsense?


#3. Some people do so much more for the welfare of society that they deserve to be richer than most people.


There are two problems with this argument.


First, just because one person does more for the welfare of society than another doesn’t mean he or she deserves to be richer than the other. People who want to justify inequality assert this “deserve” argument, but it’s just an assertion. In fact, when society is based on this notion it reinforces the “get richer than other people” motive and increases the number of people who merely pretend to be doing something for the welfare of society but in fact are doing what they do to get richer than others. This is what leads people to pass off shoddy work as high quality and charge full price for it. This is what leads people to adulterate their product. This is what leads to all sorts of corruption and dishonesty. Is this what we want?


Second, it is impossible to quantify how many times greater one person's contribution to the welfare of society is than another's, and hence impossible to use this comparison to say how many times greater the wealth of one person should be compared to others.


Take Bill Gates, for example, with his $70 Billion fortune. Here's the problem one encounters if one tries to justify his net worth on the basis of  his supposedly greater contribution to society. Many working class people, despite contributing to society by working hard, have debts that exceed the value of their assets, and hence have less than zero wealth. Since zero multiplied by a billion or a trillion or even a gazillion is still just zero, Bill Gates’s fortune is more than a gazillion times the wealth of many working people. No matter how much one admires Bill Gates, nobody seriously argues his contribution to society is a gazillion times more than that of many working people. Bill Gates’s contribution to society cannot be quantified to determine how much more wealth he should have than others.


Furthermore, when one looks closely at Bill Gates’s contribution to society it doesn’t seem all that much greater than that of other people. Even if one starts with the idea that Bill Gates single-handedly created the Microsoft operating system that most computers use, one must keep in mind that the Bill Gates who did this wonderful thing could never have done it were it not for the teachers who taught him to read and write, the people before him who invented the idea of a computer and the idea of software, the carpenters and other tradespeople who built the homes he lived in and the offices where he worked, the doctors and nurses and all the other medical and hospital workers who treated him when he was ill, the farmers who grew his food and the truck drivers who moved it to his location, and the list goes on and on and on.


All of these people contributed to whatever contribution we attribute to Bill Gates the individual. How can we say where the part of the contribution due to others ends and the part due only to Bill Gates begins, never mind quantify these contributions to calculate how much more wealth is deserved by Bill Gates than by the others?


Looking even closer at what Bill Gates did to get so rich, this is what we find.  In 1980, Bill Gates bought an existing software program, QDOS (written by other people, not Bill Gates), for $50,000. (To afford this, it may have helped that Gates's father was a wealthy lawyer.) Gates made very minor changes to QDOS, renamed it MS-DOS, and sold it to IBM while keeping the copyright. He thus collected a royalty for every PC computer sale. This is how Bill Gates became a billionaire.  Yes, Bill Gates made one hell of a business deal. But does this give him a moral claim to own $70 Billion while other hard working people earn the minimum wage?


In an article titled "Bill Gates' Wealth: Where Did It Come From?" author Jenny Brown writes the following true words:


Work hard and you'll be rich, too

Some argue that Bill Gates worked really hard in the early days, so now he deserves his fortune. But a lot of people work hard every day and end up in debt, so what made the difference for Bill? It is not Bill Gates' hard work that makes him richer every day (if it ever was), it is the sweat and brainpower of Microsoft's workers that make Bill Gates (and Microsoft's shareholders) richer every day. The key to getting rich, political scientist Michael Parenti points out, "is not to work hard yourself. It's to get other people to work hard for you." As Stokely Carmichael once observed, looking around the cotton fields of the Mississippi Delta, "If hard work made you rich, black people would own this country."

#4. "Hey, what harm is there in letting some people be just a little bit richer than others as long as it's not too extreme a difference between the rich and poor?"

The problem with this idea (one that many liberals hold) is that it tacitly accepts the premises on which class inequality is based. Once one accepts these premises, they lead inevitably to not just small differences in wealth but the extreme differences that we see today in the United States. Read about how this is so in Mom and Pop Capitalism.


* More specifically, "From each according to reasonable ability, to each according to need or reasonable desire with scarce things equitably rationed according to need.

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