There is an illusion, a myth, that some people are “self-made,” that wealthy or otherwise successful people can attribute their accomplishments mostly to their own talent and hard work. On the basis of this illusion, it is concluded that they are “entitled” to their wealth, fame, and privilege. People who are not successful are not seen as deserving of these benefits. Conservative politicians complain that society simply cannot afford “entitlements” for everyone, but only for people who have contributed.
At the level of the family, this is absurd. Almost all of us can agree that children are entitled to care and comfort, otherwise none would survive. Most of us see the same entitlement for elders and for people who are sick or disabled. Most families don’t begrudge these benefits to weaker members, instead they take joy in mutual care. At the level of society, however, child care, benefits for people with disabilities, universal health care, and care for the elderly are all politically controversial “entitlements,” with politicians on the right saying they are not legitimate and politicians on the left saying they are human rights (if only we could afford them).
Even more controversial is the suggestion of an entitlement to support for what George Bernard Shaw called the “undeserving poor” – alcoholics, drug addicts, and people unwilling to work, to “make something of themselves.” Even supporters of widows, orphans, the sick, and the elderly have difficulty with seeing these people as entitled. Governments, whether of the right or the left, either ignore the undeserving or maintain them at an almost punitive subsistence level.
I said at the beginning that being “self-made” is an illusion. This was first brought to my attention when I read Edward Bellamy’s (1887) novel Looking Backward 2000 to 1887. Here is the explanation of why, in the utopia of the year 2000, everyone, including people with disabilities, is paid the same, regardless of effort or ability:
“How happened it … that your workers [in 1887] were able to produce more than so many savages would have done? Was it not wholly on account of the heritage of the past knowledge and achievements of the race, the machinery of society, thousands of years in contriving, found by you ready- made to your hand? How did you come to be possessors of this knowledge and this machinery, which represent nine parts to one contributed by yourself in the value of your product? You inherited it, did you not? And were not these others, these unfortunate and crippled brothers whom you cast out, joint inheritors, co-heirs with you? What did you do with their share? Did you not rob them when you put them off with crusts, who were entitled to sit with the heirs, and did you not add insult to robbery when you called the crusts charity?
Bellamy is expressing a simple notion, that we all are heirs to milleniums of invention, creativity, and hard work. Even the most productive and successful person can contribute only a tiny bit to humanity’s accumulated intellectual and physical capital. As humans, we are entitled to equal shares of this bounty, just as everyone is cared for in the natural family.
A similar point point was made more succinctly in the 18th Century by Sir Isaac Newton, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Newton could see that his ability to create/discover the major laws of physics, brilliant as it was, was merely an addition and elaboration of what had gone before.
Much more recently, Malcolm Gladwell, in his 2008 book, Outliers: The Story of Success, made the point that in addition to inherited wealth, talent, and hard work, most successful people have had a great deal of “luck” in terms of their date of birth, cultural heritage, and other arbitrary factors.
So merely by being human, we are entitled to a share in the accumulated wealth of humanity. The political challenge should not be about the validity of this ethical truth, but to create systems of social relations that give each person that to which he or she is entitled by birth. We are all brothers and sisters; let’s begin acting like a family.