Why Can't Everyone Be Rich?
—Where the hell is the pizza guy?
Did you know that it is virtually impossible for everyone to be wealthy?
To understand why, just think for a moment about what it really means to
have a lot of money (which is what most people think of when they hear the
word wealthy). Essentially, it means that you can have a lot of
stuff, like cars, houses, land and so on. Money, you see, no matter what
the economists say about it, is access to resources, the media from which
all that stuff is made.
But here's the catch: resources are not endless. In fact, they become more limited with each passing day. In case you haven't been paying attention, the earth's population is now over 6 billion. The planet itself, however, has not increased in size. The earth is pretty much the same as it has been for the last 4 billion years. The math is simple. A lot more people are clamoring for fewer and fewer resources. As a result, only a few may gain the advantage of having excessive access to the ever dwindling storehouse. There simply aren't enough of the excessive variety to go around; necessary resources for everyone, yes, but excessive, no.
But there's more. One of the resources (to some thinkers the main one) is human labor (and ingenuity). Even the Bible's primary statement regarding resources includes the human factor:
The earth is the Lord's, and the fulness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein.
To really appreciate why everyone can't be rich, think of it primarily in terms of the human resources, and ask yourself a simple question: Would you really feel rich if you could not be served by another human being in some form or fashion? For example, rich people typically love to dine at fancy restaurants. But how is such a thing possible without human resources? If everyone was rich, who would prepare and serve the food, not to mention clean up afterwards? They (the rich) also like to drive (or be driven around in) luxurious cars. How could this happen without human labor, from the work involved in digging the ores to process the metal, to the actual design and manufacture of the car, not to mention all the toil associated with maintaining it? The bottom line is simple: The very essence of being rich suggests the power to access the labor of the non-rich. In terms that are less kind, being rich means you have the power to ride the backs of the poor.
Money without resources, especially the human kind, is meaningless. A simple thought experiment can easily confirm it. Imagine you woke up one morning and discovered a suitcase filled with money on your doorstep. Just for the fun of it, let's say it contained several million dollars. But suppose you then discovered that all the people in the world had mysteriously disappeared. How rich do you think you would feel then? You couldn't even call a pizza delivery service, let alone dine at the most expensive restaurant in town. You also couldn't drive to the nearest gas station to put enough gas in your car to make it to the Mercedes dealership to trade up.
Now let's change the conditions a little. Instead of learning that everyone else in the world had disappeared, suppose you discovered that they had also received a similar gift on their front doorstep. Do you think your pizza delivery boy is still going to be available? Not bloody likely! He would have millions himself. Why in God's name would he keep delivering pizzas? He'd most likely want to call for a pizza himself. And of course he would be just as disappointed as you when he learned that he couldn't.
No matter how you view it, the feeling of being rich is inextricably connected to the ability to use other human beings. If there were no people around to serve us (as we so euphemistically phrase it) we could never feel rich, no matter how much money we had. Being rich, in other words, is not an absolute condition. It is relative, which means it's related to something else, and that something else is poverty, or at very least, middle-class wealth.
If you reverse the experiment and try to imagine that everyone is poor, you also run into difficulties. If everyone were poor, how could you tell? It would be a situation in which the idea of being rich (or poor) would be incomprehensible. It would simply be the way things were.
This can only mean that the rich actually create the poor (and vice versa). If you don't believe it, try another thought experiment. This time imagine yourself visiting a place whose inhabitants live (at least by most standards) in abject poverty, and know nothing of the outside world. They are all, to a man (and woman), the same. No one in this hypothetical community would have any more (or less) than anyone else. Suddenly, you (an outsider) arrive, an affluent American, with your pockets full of trinkets. The idea of inequality would suddenly enter their otherwise innocent (and no doubt peaceful) minds, and gross disparity is at the very heart of the whole idea of rich and poor, sometimes offhandedly referred to as the haves and have-nots. It is impossible for only one of the pair to show up. They always appear as a set: the rich and the poor. They can no more be separated than the two poles of a magnet. The rich could not be rich if they could not ride the backs of the poor, and the poor could not be poor without the rich around calling attention to their poverty.
In other words, wealth without slavery is impossible. There has, in fact, never been a developed civilization that has been developed without the use of slaves, even if they were only "wage" slaves, or the slaves that we so glibly refer to as "machines," or "robots."
Because slavery is so increasingly frowned upon as being downright immoral, we have learned how to avail ourselves of it by exporting it. Yes, we have not gotten rid of slavery in America so much as we have sent it off to the sweat shops that are operating (as we speak) in other parts of the world. In a very real sense then, we have only swept it under the rug.
Why can't everyone be rich? Because somebody has to take out the trash.
November 3, 2004