"Liberals just want to take money that isn't theirs and give it to people who didn't earn it" is the sort of thing I've heard from conservatives many times.

This often comes up when talking about taxing the rich, and it makes me wonder, if you shouldn't get money if you didn't earn it, did the rich actually earn all that money?

How did Bill Gates "earn" $70 billion or whatever it is he's worth at the moment? If I go out and break a sweat tossing bales forks full of hay onto the back of a truck on a 90F day, and I get paid minimum wage for it, I know I've earned that money. 

Bill Gates makes money every day and probably doesn't even know where it's coming from. Does he "earn" that money?

If you have a job, it's a job someone else doesn't have. In a sense, it came from them. The same with wealth: if you have a million dollars, it's a million dollars someone else doesn't have. In a sense, it came from them.

Anyway, it seems to me that it's a stretch to say that a lot of wealth was actually earned in any meaningful way, so what is the problem with redistributing it?

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I'd say no, not in the modern system.

They can inherit it, which shows no effort at all.

They can receive it through the efforts of others (interest and dividends on investments managed by other people).

They can have accumulated it through methods that did not contribute to the general betterment of society.  (theft, selling drugs, building monopolies, etc.)

A lot of wealthy people's wealth isn't really their own, in a sense. They didn't earn it; they got it. For example, as an inheritance. To me, passive income smells more like inheritance than like wealth achieved through shrewd investments. 

That's an extremely broad and vague question. It entirely depends on ones subjective definition of to earn and even more on their own limitations and extra clauses they throw on top of it.

There is no every day language meaning for complex terms. There can be radically different answers (not just subtle ones or nuanced ones). Does a ceo earn his golden parachute? Does a policeman earn a communities respect? How can you possibly summarise a working classes definition with the middle classes one or extract a common definition reaching across different communities and contexts and subgroups and contrarians and provide one definition and one methodology to answer the question. That's absurd.

Intuitively I'd say in one way children earn their enormous inheritance by working to meet the expectations of their parents. On the other hand I'd say no one really earns millions of dollars without some notable labour or taking risks and making sacrafices. But then that's just one voice and one POV amongst millions.

Take the dictionary definition, enter the variables of the context, variables of time and place, variables of society and ideology, subgroup variables, personal variables and the persons biases, emotions and mood...hit enter and Viola...a thousand different answers. This cannot be reduced to anything other than a dictionary definition.

Ultimately we don't even need to concern ourselves with what earn means in order to justify redistribution of resources. A humanist answer (with a clear definition) suffices.

Here Here!

You have earned these accolades!

Well, according to the earning algorythm, you earned 83% of them, the other 17% you stole from others who got no credit for the input that lead to you gaining those accolades.

Celebrate accordingly...with 17% less ebullation.  

:D

Hurrah!!! I am the king of externalities!!! 

Words often mean different things depending upon context and how they are used. Examples:

Meg earned her promotion through her diligence and loyalty to the company.

Meg's stock purchase earned her a huge return, more than tripling in value the first year.

In the first case there is a direct and seemingly moral connection between Meg and what she earned. It reflects on her character. In the second, what she set in motion earned a return and there doesn't seem to be any moral aspect to the earnings. It reflects on her skill and luck more than her character.

If one wants to say even passive income, like the growth of value of stock has a positive moral aspect to it such that it somehow necessarily attributes to the character of the person, that cuts two ways. Suppose you invest in a garment manufacturer and there is a fire and people die because the business locked its workers indoors. If the business brings in profits and you have a moral claim to those profits even though your role was simply to invest, then perhaps you should go to prison due to your moral claim if the business turns out to be deadly.

The business jargon version of "earnings" as it is normally used seems to attribute positive values to making a profitable investment while excusing business people from the consequences of their investments due to their lack of "hands on" activity. 

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