So much of the political debate right now centers on the Haves and the Have-Nots. Sometimes we talk about the 1 percent vs. the 99 percent. Other times, it’s the big corporation vs. the working poor.
Either way, the theme is simple: Someone has something, and others don’t. The one that has is bad. The one that has not is someone heroic. The free market is evil because it promotes this inequity.
What is lost in this over-simplification is the idea of ability. All of the current rhetoric deals with wealth alone. We hear about wealth inequality, and lawmakers push policies designed to redistribute wealth, usually by increasing taxes on the successful to support programs for those that have less.
Yet, that approach assumes that wealth is static, when the opposite is true. We know that affluence is often elusive, that people make money, then lose it and make it again. It is not locked up in a tower, to be freed through an economic storming of the Bastille (or a malodorous occupation of some public square). Redistributing that wealth doesn’t help solve the issue because it destroys the very thing you are trying to preserve, like bringing a snowman indoors. Equal wealth doesn’t make different people rich. It makes everyone poor.
Instead of inequality of wealth, the focus should be the equality of ability. There are no Have-Nots when it comes to ability. Everyone is capable of success. Everyone, through their talent and attitude, can better themselves. It is not easy, nor is it guaranteed. But it is possible.
And now, I beg a moment for a homily. If it makes folks feel more comfortable to put it into a context of us vs. them, then compare this to David vs. Goliath. Goliath of Gath was depicted as a champion of the Philistines (he grew in height over the centuries that the story was told), who challenged anyone among the Israelites for a one-on-one battle. David, son of a servant and far from his later role as king, offered himself, devoid of armor and armed with just a rock and a sling. As the story goes, David smacked Goliath between the eyes, launching David on a pretty successful career as a politician and poet.
The story, of course, is filled with religious symbolism, but it can be viewed in very secular – and, more importantly, entrepreneurial — terms. David saw an opportunity for himself, a weakness in his competitor and an item to use right in front of him: a rock. There was disparity in size, experience and track record between David and Goliath. But David believed he was capable. The equality of ability gave him that chance.
For those who would argue the story is myth or allegory, I would point out that all myths come from some basic fact, instinct or experience. While the David story is the perfect example of the strength of ability, modern business has given us a lot of examples, too. Look at another David, Dave Thomas. Abandoned by his birth mother, he grew up with a father who moved often, changing jobs, struggling along the way. As the narrative goes, Thomas started working in restaurants at the age of 12, dropping out of high school and eventually becoming a key leader at Kentucky Fried Chicken. In 1969, he started his first Wendy’s restaurant. The rest, as they say, is history.
Thomas had every excuse to not succeed: the psychological impact of his adoption, the lack of a stable home base, the absence of basic education. Instead, he believed in his own ability, that no one was better, smarter or more capable than he was in shaping his own destiny. He used to say he got his MBA before he earned his GED, but, to him, MBA stood for “mop bucket attitude.” It was all about the work ethic, and his ability to do the job.
On a smaller scale, this happens every day. Our pages are filled with stories about people who took risks, took chances, all based on two things: an idea that something could be done in a way that hadn’t been tried before, and the faith that only they had the ability and drive to see it through. It is the essence of American entrepreneurship, and it is why a reclamation of entrepreneurial principles, a promotion of inspiration and an encouragement of Americans’ individual capabilities needs to be the central focus of any policy response to the current economic mess.
Still, neither seems important. Mention increasing entrepreneurship – whether that means starting a business or using innovation in your current work environment – and you are derided as out of touch, as if the history of American business was somehow hatched out of the halls of Congress rather than the heads of individuals. Talk about programs meant to get people working and off public assistance, and you are accused of cheering on poverty and hunger. Instead, we are somehow supposed to continue to tell people that the system is rigged against them, that the wealthy want to keep them down, that companies want them to fail. Is it any wonder we have so many discouraged workers in this country and historically low participation in the labor force?
Encouraging people to believe they are capable of success and wealth can’t be wrong. There are no Have-Nots when it comes to ability. History has proven that. The present just has to catch up to the idea.