November 17 2010
An old friend of mine recently concluded an email by noting that The Social Network, the Aaron Sorkin movie about Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, "really makes you aware of how much good luck and timing are involved with great inventions and great fortunes."
The Social Network made me aware of a number of things - such as that I am glad I'm not in college today - but luck? Does anyone really think that Mark Zuckerberg, a single-minded genius, owes his wealth to luck?
But my friend is a liberal. She is blessed with a Rush-quoting, flat tax-advocating twin sister. Let's call them Rosa, after Rosa Luxembourg, and Maggie, in homage to Baroness Thatcher, whom the sensible sister admires greatly. Okay, the other isn't quite Rosa Luxembourg. But you get the picture.
The twins grew up in a Memphis household straight out of a novel by Peter Taylor, the troubadour of old-line Memphis. I've known them since the eleventh grade and wouldn't trade anything for both friendships. But I have nevertheless often pondered: How did it happen that they have such different attitudes?
Needless to say, the twins have similar backgrounds. I've told them repeatedly how lucky they are not to be Siamese twins. Rosa would have to go to Tea Party rallies, and Maggie would have to sit through socially conscious sermons at Rosa's activist church. Oh, yes, and eat vegan.
Rosa has never met a social program large enough. When I told her about seeing food stamps abused in my neighborhood grocery (a "client" bought a pomegranate - I kid you not! - to get change to buy liquor, which can't be directly purchased with the government-issued funny money), she argued that the food stamp program simply needs more employees. That way they could help people make healthier choices!
Maggie has perhaps made less wise choices than Rosa, and now, as a result, she must work harder and longer. This has caused her to be acquainted with the Federal Insurance Contributions Act (FICA). Maggie gets furious at the money FICA confiscates from her paycheck. Mystified, Rosa says that Maggie isn't making enough money to complain about taxes. But if you aren't making very much, you tend to hate Mr. FICA wasting even a fraction of your paycheck on leisure-class stalwarts like Mr. Pomegranate.
Rosa told me once about somebody she knew who sat on a board and picked up quite a bit of money doing so. It was all because his grandfather had created a company that was later sold to a giant in the field. Rosa thinks this is unfair. She is a nice enough person not to have viewed it as unfair to her, but as somehow just unfair on a moral basis, unfair to the food stamps office that needs more money to hire more people to supervise more lives. You could argue that was pure luck. It was in many ways, but it was also luck produced by the hard work and business acumen of a previous generation. When I was a callow youth, I believed that such fortunes should be taxed so heavily that we'd all start out equal. Now, I would argue that you have a right to pass your holdings, the product of work and foresight, along, and that it is all fair and square. Besides, you don't have to worry about great fortunes in America. Heirs almost always fritter them away.
But the quick end, just an afterthought to an email otherwise engaged in catching up, gave me the clue: Rosa believes that what you have is the product of luck. CEO or street person. A toss of the coin. She doesn't recognize that luck, while important, isn't the key to success. The ancients and Medieval people were obsessed with luck - remember the famous, "O, Fortuna, Velut luna," from the Carmina Burana (as long as we're focusing on high school, why not mention something we thought daring then?), lamenting that fortune is as changeable as the moon. In a pre-entrepreneurial society with assigned status, there was less wiggle room.
We don't have as many songs about luck, I think, because we know deep down that in a society like ours you make your own luck. Knock on wood, but I don't think luck is as important as other qualities in building a great fortune. Many lottery winners, who obviously believe in luck or they wouldn't be playing, are deeply in debt a few years after striking it rich. They've been singularly lucky, but they blew it. Habits are more important than luck. I'm not knocking luck - it's not an either or, you're lucky or you're industrious - and I'd love to have a run of good luck.
But if you believe that being a titan of industry or a bum is just a matter of luck, you have no problem with redistribution. In fact, the would-be titan, in the gutter because of bad luck, deserves a portion of what, had his luck been better, is rightly his or hers.
Ironically, it's good luck that has made Rosa believe in luck. She spent her inheritance
wisely, buying a few nice pieces of art, and not a big house she couldn't afford (like Maggie). But, of course, it wasn't luck at all - it was husbanding what she had, making choices that created stability, and all the things the unlucky twin - who started with just the same advantages - didn't do. Now, if she could just make the right political choices...
Charlotte Hays is a Senior Fellow at the Independent Women's Forum.