Understanding Fairness/Luck, Land, and Legacy

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There are at least three reasons why the wealthiest among us can feel good about sharing their bounty with those less fortunate. Those three reasons are luck, land, and legacy.

It is more likely than not that a wealthy person is male rather than female, white rather than black, healthy rather than sickly, fit and able bodied, higher than average intelligence, and living in the developed world rather than in the developing world. Each of these success factors is primarily a matter of luck rather than personal skill. While there are many examples where hard work, courage, persistence, ingenuity, and resourcefulness has helped someone overcome adversity and accumulate wealth, these willful factors often rely on good fortune. If today’s self-made man had the misfortune to be born a black woman in Eritrea or in a poor region of Niger the outcome would have been much different.

We have no moral claim to our luck. Instead the most fortunate can accept a moral responsibility to share the fruits of their good fortune.

Land is an important form of wealth. Landlords, ranchers, farmers, and mining companies all enjoy a financial return from the land they claim. Housing requires land. Real-estate developers and brokers profit from the land they buy, sell, and let. Land ownership accumulates wealth and can be passed on to future generations.

Land ownership ultimately originates with conquest. The North American land mass was first inhabited by diverse tribes of native Americans. After Christopher Columbus learned of the continent, the land was usurped by Europeans without cause. The history of Pennsylvania is one example. On March 4, 1681, Charles II of England granted the Province of Pennsylvania to William Penn to settle a debt of £16,000 that the king owed to Penn's father. The King, of course, had no legitimate claim to the land he so generously granted.

Although there is no legitimate basis for a sovereign claim to land ownership, many family fortunes have accrued from land holdings. This wealth, and the land it sprang from is often passed along from one generation to the next.

Wealth builds wealth. Inheriting wealth, including land, mineral rights, money, securities, jewelry, or other valuables provides a leg up in life to the fortunate recipient. Hard work helps, but hard work combined with an inheritance of wealth rather than debt makes a big difference.

We hear heated debates about the moral status of progressive taxes, wealth taxes, inheritance and estate taxes, and universal basic income. The wealthiest among us are beneficiaries of luck, land, and legacy, in addition to hard work and resourcefulness. They can be thankful for their circumstances and grateful to share the fruits of their good fortune with those less fortunate.