Work Hard, Get Rich. Just That Easy?
If you were to research the top five arguments against forcing the rich to pay higher taxes or to "share the wealth," you would inevitably find this as one of the arguments: "It's unfair. The reason rich people are rich is because they work hard and earn it." And, more often than not, the argument would be followed by one or more statements like this: "If you work hard you can get rich, too" or "The reason poor people are poor is because they're lazy."
Now, I'll freely admit that this philosophy sounds pretty good. In fact, since the basis of this philosophy says that "hard work equals wealth" and "laziness equals poverty" it seems logical to conclude that the harder a person works the greater his or her wealth will be, which would then allow for a sort of Work-to-Wealth scale to be utilized; you know, a scale where people operating at a work level of 1 or 2 are poor, people working at a level of 9 or 10 are rich, and people working at a level of 3 to 8 (kinda lazy, kinda willing to work) range from lower to upper middle class. Wouldn't that, if it were true, be a fair and just system? Wouldn't it (never mind the fact that it is insulting to everyone who isn't already well-off) even make sense?
It's no wonder so many Americans buy into it.
But, when you stop to really, really think about it, does such a system stack up to reality? Is hard work really the only reason why some people are rich and some people are poor and some people are middle class? According to the philosophy, according to the people who say the wealthy should not bear a larger tax burden than they currently do, it is true. According to them, rich people should not be forced to share their wealth because:
CEOs work harder than firefighters do. Wall Street bankers work harder than elementary school teachers do. Professional athletes work harder (and risk more?) than soldiers, marines, airmen, and sailors do. Television and movie stars work harder than cops, or nurses, or waitresses do.
Of course, if you were to confront the "rich people are rich because they work hard" crowd with the logical conclusion to their argument, they would deny that conclusion. They would say something like, "Of course rich Americans don't work harder than average Americans do. American workers are the finest in the world! What we mean is: Every American, through hard work, has the OPPORTUNITY to become rich." And right there, in adding this condition to their argument, the "rich are rich because they work hard" crowd blow their whole argument.
Because, by adding any condition at all, they admit that wealth does not actually depend on hard work alone. And, if wealth does not depend on hard work alone, hard work can no longer be used as an excuse for the rich avoiding taxes.
However, by adding the opportunity condition, they do raise another point and therefore bring up another question: Is there really such a thing as "equal opportunity" for all Americans? Because, if there is such a thing, then I do think the "it's unfair to tax the rich" argument (if the rich are already paying equal tax rates as the rest of us) might actually be sound. But this equal opportunity topic (no matter how obvious the answer to that question, to me, seems to be) is a whole new can of worms, so it's one I'll get into at another time.
-Greg, November 2011