July 26, 2014

Is It Logically Possible For Everyone to Be Rich?

One of the most common, even if not universal career motivations and dangled job prospects is the chance to become “rich”, as though it were “possible” in both of two very different senses: “Anybody can do it” and “Everybody can do it”. These are not the same.

“Anybody” suggests that some randomly chosen individual can achieve that, while “everybody” suggests that each of us can achieve that simultaneously, i.e., that no one would not be or become rich. To grasp the difference, compare “Anybody can become #1” and “Everybody can become #1” or “Anybody can become a POTUS (President of the United States)” and “Everybody can become a POTUS”.

It simply is not true that everybody can become either of these, because it is a logical impossibility in the case of becoming #1 (with no ties for exclusionary first place) and a legal impossibility in the case of becoming a POTUS—unless we all become immortal so that we all have enough time to reach those pinnacles sequentially, i.e., to have our turn at being #1 or the POTUS.

A parallel argument is easily constructed against the logical impossibility of everyone being “special” in the same sense and way (not to be confused with being merely “different” from each other).

[Those of you familiar with or for some reason interested in symbolic logic may want to compare this analysis with the inferential relationship between “any” and “all” in formal logic.]

Gecko and the Quakers

Those who believe that all of us—everybody—should or can become rich simultaneously include those with little appetite for living in a competitive, dog-eat-dog society divided into the haves and the have-nots, where being a “have” means “has a lot more than others”. Their idealization and formulation of being “rich” is very likely, if not required, to define “rich” along the lines of “has much more than is necessary to meet essential needs”.

That kind of definition logically allows that each and every one of us can in fact simultaneously be rich, in addition to having the potential to become rich. That’s because, in a world of over-abundance, it is indeed logically possible for every one of us, i.e., “everybody”, to have more than is needed.

But that’s not the kind of “wealth” a Wall Street Gordon Gecko wants from his career. Instead, his target is exceptional wealth that is rare, invidious (in making others envious) and blatantly about “greed”—which is definable as “wanting much more than is needed or deserved”.

This difference between greedy Gecko and a prosperous Quaker who can be comfortable with equitably or comparably distributed abundance for all is quite analogous to the difference between wanting to be glamorous and striving to be charming—the latter, unlike the former, being entirely unreliant on making others envious, because charm, unlike glamor, is inclusive, not exclusive and exclusionary the way glamor is.

If you don’t get this, consider the difference between a charming hostess who makes everyone feel “special” and a glamorous one who strives to make only herself feel that way.

In Gecko’s world and ideology, it is not only logically impossible for everyone, i.e., all of us, simultaneously, to be rich (or glamorous), .but also undesirable that we all should—perhaps because of some underlying companion ideology of “natural selection”, “survival of the fittest” or “thinning of the herd”.

Hence, Gecko will define “rich” as “having much more than almost everyone else” and ideally as “having much more than everyone else”, the former allowing for the existence of a wealthy, small elite, the latter allowing only for an elite of one, either way being “a good thing”.

The way a culture, society or an organization formulates its concept of personal wealth and riches will define or express its idealization of competition, cooperation or merely peaceful, non-adversarial coexistence of its members.

In highly competitive America, the odds are that any randomly asked job applicant will define “rich” in some way that more closely approximates Gecko’s concept than what I have characterized as the “fair-minded” Quaker notion of temperance and moderation.

The “Can-Do” Spirit of Pyramid Marketing and the “Don’t-Dare-to-Do” Wealth Confiscators

To intelligently understand what it means to be rich, we also have to distinguish “can become rich” in terms of “actually becoming rich” vs. “potentially becoming rich”. Often these are not distinguished from each other—intentionally in some cases, in which instances concealing the difference is critical to motivating recruits and existing employees.

For example, the dream of untold riches is dangled before bedazzled distributors in pyramid marketing schemes by suggesting that there is no difference between “potentially can” and “actually can”—that anyone who tries “hard enough” can, i.e., will, become rich because (s)he has the right stuff to get the right result, i.e., has the capacity for that kind of hard work and has the requisite talent.

What about “anti-rich” Communists and draconian tax schemes designed to “redistribute the wealth”? (Note the wealth redistribution theme even in some modern exhortations of Quakerism.) What’s the implicit concept of “rich” in their respective, if not identical, ideological stances? Clearly, for both, “rich” equals “has unacceptably more than is needed” . “Has more than is needed” would be too draconian and stringent, since it would entail that in a just society everyone would live at the kind of subsistence level Max warned about and railed against.

Once again, notice the correlation between a society’s or ideology’s conceptualization of “rich” and the behavioral, attitudinal and policy consequences that it legitimizes or prescribes.

Where the Communists differ from tax-and-grab ideologues is in application of expropriation—with the tax man grabbing all of your property only after you fail to pay your “fair share”…

…rather than before.

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Michael Moffa, writer for Recruiter.com, is a former editor and writer with China Daily News, Hong Kong edition and Editor-in-chief, Business Insight Japan Magazine, Tokyo; he has also been a columnist with one of Japan’s national newspapers, The Daily Yomiuri, and a university lecturer (critical thinking and philosophy).