I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the skillful; but time and chance happen to them all” (Ecclesiastes 9:11)
Imagine being a part of the marathon race. A large group of runners is gathered at the line and the starting pistol is fired. You, along with the many others, do your best. Sure, there are some who don’t seem to be focused and determined to finish. But most of them are like you. They run with resolve, hoping to get to the front of the pack in order to be among the winners. Then you find out that a tiny group of participants got to start the race miles ahead of everyone else. Not only that, but after hard running part of the way, they are given motor scooters to ride to the finish line. When they cross the
line, they were greeted with an abundance of accolades and prizes of various sorts. The remaining runners trudge along, far behind.
In America much is said about success and failure. A lot of it is simply not true. We celebrate those who are successful as though they faced all the challenges everyone else has faced. It isn’t so. Then we turn around and accept a worldview and political positions that assume that “individual initiative” is the end-all-and-be-all. But the playing field is drastically unequal and many people never stood a chance because they never were able to participate in the most basic advantages had by the successful ones. It is long past time that we reject the assumption that those who are successful clearly deserve the credit and that those who do not succeed usually deserve to be blamed. Hard work is only one factor in success and not the most important one.
Commentator Cal Thomas has claimed, “Wealth is a sign of achievement, a reward for risks taken.” But this assertion is misleading. First of all, wealth is not necessarily a sign of achievement. Some people are born into wealth. Others, such as lottery winners, gain it through a fluke of circumstances. These people may wear the aura of success without doing one thing to earn it. But even when wealth is earned, that achievement does not come about solely due to individual effort and risk taking determination. Thomas and many who think like him lack the insight of the author of Ecclesiastes. The most important factors involved in success have little to do with effort. I propose that the following frequently unacknowledged items are necessary steps in a successful life.
(1) Get born in the right time.
(2) Get born in the right part of the world.
(3) Get born in the right family.
(4) Get the right combination of genes.
(5) Meet the right people.
(6) Take advantage of the opportunities (1) – (5) provide by working hard.
(7) Die at the right time, that is, before encountering a major uncontrollable set-back such as catastrophic illness, accident or natural disaster.
On rare occasions some or all of steps (1) – (3) may be missing but the absence of these must be over-compensated with steps (4) and (5) without which (6) and (7) cannot take place.
Nobody has a right to claim they were able to succeed all because of their hard work. Without some unmerited advantages at the very beginning of life, and usually at some points thereafter, the most successful ones among us would not have excelled. Nor would they have reaped the subsequent rewards. Because of this, a good deal of humility is warranted both from those who have gotten wealth because they inherited it and from those who worked hard and became financially prosperous. Surely, these fortunate ones should not be condemned for their good fortune. But neither should they be valorized.
The inevitable inequalities due to the accidents of birth are not the only factors at work in success and failure and the rewards – or lack of them – that follow. Those who gain power and wealth characteristically use their resources to reinforce their dominance. Business practices are established and laws are passed that favor those who are already advantaged, solidifying control and making it even more likely that their wealth will disproportionately grow in relation to that of most people. The system has been gamed. Those who benefit from this arrangement deflect the concerns of the ones who object to it by accusing them of “envy.”
Envy used to be condemned as one of the Seven Deadly Sins. It was something to be avoided and discouraged,” pointed out a pundit in the Washington Times as he condemned the Occupy Wall Street movement. He claimed that those who are unhappy with the gross inequality in America “begrudge the rich what they own.” Chuck Colson made a similar accusation. He suggested that what those concerned about inequality just “want is to see their better-off neighbors knocked down a peg.” This is a total distortion of both
the motives and issues that are being voiced by those disturbed by what passes for success in America and the overblown rewards it reaps. It is not envy but a sense that “the powerful dictate what they desire; thus they pervert justice,” as the prophet Micah recognized (7:2-3). This is at the heart of the concerns over gross inequality.
For instance, there are voices claiming that any suggestion that capital gains be taxed at the same rate as earned income or putting any sort of limits on inherited wealth is a form of “punishing success.” Some contend these are means of “taking from the rich and giving to the poor.” Yet the only way to compensate for the loss of revenue from giving a lower tax rate to the wealthy is to shift the tax burden to the less affluent and/or reduce expenditures that are beneficial to the less advantaged. A tax code that privileges the privileged at the expense of the needy is contrary to the concerns expressed in scripture. “Oppressing the poor in order to enrich oneself, and giving to the rich, will only lead to loss” (Proverbs 22:16).
The vast majority of the population benefits proportionately little or nothing from these provisions. While most of the income of the wealthy comes from capital gains and dividends, that is not the case for others. How it is just that income earned “from the sweat of your brow” is taxed at a higher rate than the effortless income of capital gains and dividends? Some claim that taxing unearned income is “double taxation.” But that is a ridiculous claim since that original capital is not taxed a second time but only the new profits derived from it. Taxing these at a lower rate is an extra benefit for those who are already over-privileged. Since most of their income is taxed less, this enables them to increase their wealth at a faster rate.
No matter how many times the advocates for the hyper-wealthy claim that “envious” folks want success punished, it just isn’t true. What many people do want is to reverse the policies that further advantage the most privileged. Will this “disincentivize success, punish prosperity and productivity and stifle political liberties”? I think not. Honesty requires that we recognize that a wealthy minority is being lavishly over-compensated by both the private sector and government policy and not because they have worked harder. As indicated by the seven steps I listed earlier, success is not in fact all about effort and merit. Consequently, more attention needs to be put into equalizing opportunity and more concern needs to be shown for providing incentives for those who did not start with so many advantages.
The dramatic growth seen in the last few decades in the wealth in the top few percent of the population is not disconnected from less pleasant factors experienced by those further toward the bottom. Minimum wage has not kept up with inflation for several decades. The wages for about 90% of the American workforce have been stagnant for the past thirty years despite constant growth in worker productivity. Poverty in the nation is at a fifty year high. Something is dreadfully wrong when the net worth of the bottom 60 percent of all U.S. households, approximately 100 million households, is lower than that of the Forbes 400 richest Americans — a claim confirmed by various economists for PolitiFact.
Indignant voices deny that any of these facts indicate there is injustice at work. And surely, all misery in the world cannot fairly be attributed to injustice. But just as surely, much of it can be. I cannot help but recall the words of the prophet Hosea telling the people of his time to “return to your God, hold fast to love and justice,” But they, too, denied any wrong-doing. The prophet heard the denial arising from them, as though from one man, saying, “‘Ah, I am rich, I have gained wealth for myself; in all of my gain no offense has been found in me that would be sin;’ but,” wrote Hosea, “all his riches can never offset the guilt he has incurred” (Hosea 12:5-8).
When we show a greater concern with celebrating success as measured by financial abundance than we do with increasing the advantages of the under-advantaged, we have lost touch with a truly biblical faith. In scripture Christians are very directly discouraged from bestowing any place of special honor on the rich, while at the same time, sharp criticism is aimed at those who “have dishonored the poor” (James 2:1-7). Jesus taught that his followers should show a preference for the impoverished and less able over the rich and well-connected (Luke 14:12-14). Does this “disincentivize success” or “punish prosperity”? If so, our Lord seemed unconcerned. Rather than elevating the lofty, he “lifted up the lowly” (Luke 1:52). If we want to follow Jesus, we will have to concede that the truth about success and failure is not all about effort and merit or their absence, as those of us living in America have so often been told. Like Jesus, we need to lend our support to the “failures.”