Of the nearly 1,000 billionaires in the world, about 440 of them are from the United States. The U.S. is also home to more than 13,000 millionaires.
Do those people deserve that wealth? That is a burning question for many people. The obvious answer is that, no, they don't. Meanwhile, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, 48.5 million people live below the poverty line. Do they deserve their poverty? Again, the answer is an unequivocal no. Nobody deserves to be poor.
The reality is that nobody deserves anything, at least in the sense that mere existence merits a particular level of physical well-being. If the rich don't deserve their wealth, however, nobody else deserves their wealth either. The idea of dessert in this sense is a chimera. It is a distraction. The real question is about who has property rights to that wealth. If it was acquired through voluntary commerce between consenting parties, with value given for value taken, the holder of the wealth has established a right to it. Property rights are one of the key ingredients to a prosperous society, one where even the poor are much better off than those in unfree countries.
It is certainly true that many billionaires did not acquire their wealth legitimately. Some of the wealthiest people in the world are the ruling elites of poverty-stricken nations. They got their wealth by stealing from their own people and from abusing their positions of power to divert income streams to their own benefit. Corruption, fraud, violence and coercion are the standard operating procedures.
Those individuals cause destitution and hardship in much of the world. They should be subject to scorn and punishment.
It is also true that rich people are often the beneficiaries of lucky circumstances. They were lucky to be at the right place at the right time, to know the right people, to be born intelligent, or so many other circumstances over which they have no control. Most luck is fleeting, however, and is often disguised as problems. Some people prepare for luck, by educating themselves, by being active and aware in their fields of interest, by working hard to develop a skill, or by being the kind of person that others like to do business with.
Eighty percent of the millionaires in the United States are first-generation wealthy. That is, they didn't inherit their wealth. Most aren't movie stars, professional athletes, or technology wiz kids. Most of them are simply hard-working people who spent less than they earned and accumulated their prosperity over the course of a career.
A plumbing contractor living on your street may be one if he or she is an honest, hard working entrepreneur who spends less than he or she takes in.
Wealth accumulation for most people is not an overnight phenomenon, but is, rather, the result of doing the right things for many years. It is the result of choices made, choices that position the individual to recognize luck and step into its path.
The most inspirational people to me are those who refuse to accept today's circumstances as inevitable, who are always active, learning and trying new things. They are not afraid of failure, they are not concerned with what people think of them. They don't give up. When something doesn't work, they try something else. Starting with little, they make something. They may not have much today, but tomorrow they will have more.
Do those people deserve what they get? No. Their efforts often don't pay off. But when those efforts do pay off, yes, they do have a right to what they have earned.
Daniel McLaughlin is a Randolph resident. Visit daniel-mclaughlin.com for more commentary, for links to other resources, or to leave a message.