In recent years political agitation in the United States has focused on the widening gap between the wealthy and the underprivileged. An iconic moment occurred during the 2008 presidential campaign when Barack Obama, confronted by “Joe the Plumber,” insisted on the need to “share the wealth.” The “Occupy Wall Street” movement mobilized unemployed people and left-wingers in a protest against excessive corporate and executive wealth.
There is no question that a vast gulf exists between the tiny percentage of American billionaires and the general public, especially those living below the arbitrarily demarcated “poverty line.” Those who have been the beneficiaries of clever and astute business decisions, or the recipients of disproportionate corporate bonuses, have an obligation to “share the wealth” with their fellow citizens in a voluntary and appropriate manner. Throughout American history they have, in fact, done so, from the time when the founders of our nation, in the Declaration of Independence, pledged “our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor” in support of their vision for new republic.
In the course of our nation’s history, families like the Carnegies, the Mellons, the Rockefellers, and the Dukes have established public libraries, endowed colleges and universities, and set up charitable foundations. This activity continues. Warren Buffet has created multiple foundations to administer his charitable giving; Bill and Melinda Gates have done the same, such as rescuing the Bettman Archive of historic photographs from deterioration in an unsuitable New York City environment and preserving them in an abandoned Pennsylvania coal mine where they could be kept under controlled conditions and digitized.
We all recognize how inappropriate it is when the wealthy hoard their wealth for themselves and fail to give for the benefit of others. Federal income tax returns made public during political campaigns often reveal how some aspirants to high office have ignored this obligation, while others have been generous. We recoil at reports of executives who amass vast sums for themselves while many live in deprivation.
Nevertheless, the idea of simply “spreading the wealth” equally does not work out in practice, for a simple reason: in any successful economy, some people just need to be wealthier than others. For example, poor people don’t hire other people to work for them, or buy the products other people are employed to produce by more well-to-do business owners. For an economy to function, a differential must exist between those who have more and those who have less.
We can illustrate this principle with a glass of ice water. As long as there's a differential between the cold ice and the warmer water, we can see movement. The ice cracks and sputters and dissipates into the water as it absorbs its warmth. But once the ice has all melted there's no visible movement in the glass. This phenomenon illustrates what physicists call the “heat death.” As long as there’s an energy differential between two regions of matter, something can happen. Once the differential is gone through the dissipation of energy, nothing can happen. And, indeed, once this occurs to our space-time universe — and physicists say it will, in untold billions of years — there will be no life, nothing but the “big freeze” of what began in the “big bang.”
For this reason, some people in our economy need to be rich. We speak of “leveling the playing field,” but that doesn’t mean insisting, through legislation or other means, that both teams have equal resources in skill, planning, or brute strength. If that were the case the game would be deadlocked. Who would sit in the bleachers, or in front of the TV screen, to watch a game in which the score was predetermined to be a 0-0 tie? The level playing field simply means that each team has an equal opportunity to excel, as it marshalls its resources and executes its plan. American history is replete with examples of people like George Washington Carver, or now Dr. Benjamin Carson, who have excelled through their own initiative and dedication despite the odds against them. They leveled their own playing field, with God’s guidance, and succeeded. If they, and many others like them, had been made economically equal to everyone else by some government program, they would never have achieved what they achieved. And their achievements have benefited many, including people both wealthier and less well off than they.
So we need rich people, because without them our economy would stagnate into “heat death” just as that of the Soviet Union did. The wealthy person you envy may not be as public-spirited and generous as you would like. But because he or she is there our economy is alive, and you have an opportunity to take part in it.