How about a mini-Williams autobiography? From exceedingly humble beginnings, I am now in the top one percent of income-earners. How did that come about? Did someone see me walking around North Philadelphia and say, "Williams, I'm going to make you well off."? That would have been nice, but it didn't happen that way.
In 1960, stationed in Korea, 24 years old, it dawned on me that if I didn't get started soon, I'd never get anywhere. My wife and I agreed that when my army tour was over, and we saved $700, we'd move to California and I'd go to college. Discharged on July 2, 1961; I got my job back with Yellow Cab. After Thanksgiving with Mom, we were on the road to California in my 1951 Mercury towing our worldly possessions in a 4' x 6' trailer.
Connie landed a $65 a week job; I started California State College that February. My wife's meager earnings meant powdered milk, "checks & dirties" eggs, butter was out of the question except for holidays. Shopping was an excursion that might include seven stores in one evening, purchasing only those items on sale. Ten and a half years later, going to school year round, including summers, I was awarded a Ph.D. in economics from UCLA.
Our story of sacrifice and hard work is a story millions of Americans can tell. The story's point is quite different. People can easily see the fruits of others' efforts (big houses, fancy cars and money) but they usually don't see the effort that produced these fruits. As a result they conclude that it's not fair for some people to have much more than others. Envy sets in. They fall easy prey to demagogues and charlatans who convince them there's something unjust when some earn higher income than others. Justice requires that Congress step in to take away "ill-gotten" gains and return them to their "rightful" owners.
It's understandable that people see things this way. The results of hard work, sacrifice and risk-taking are visible. The actual hard work, sacrifice and risk-taking are not visible. They might conclude, "I'm a decent, hardworking guy just like Bill Gates, Sam Walton or Fred Smith. For them to have all that money, they must have done something non-kosher."
The fact of business is there are only a few wealthy or well-off people who're where they are because of inheritance or pure luck. Most high-income people achieve that status through hard work, sacrifice and risk-taking. In fact, if you survey Fortune 500's periodic listing of America's wealthiest men, it's not old money like the Vanderbilts, Rockefellers and Morgans. It's mostly first generation rich people like the Fred Smiths, Bill Gates and the late Sam Walton. For the most party, they are people who had modest starts but a vision of how to please their fellow man.
Instead of being held up to ridicule and scorn, these people ought to be America's heroes. Fred Smith, who produced a way to guarantee next day mail delivery to most any place on the globe, shouldn't be portrayed as the enemy of the common man. Sam Walton, who beat his competitors' prices shouldn't be put in the scorn category. If there are any who should be held up to scorn and ridicule, it's societal parasites - people who forcibly take from others giving nothing in return. That category includes thieves, robbers and con artists. It also includes otherwise honest people who use Congress to do the looting for them e.g., welfare recipients, and corporate CEOs of companies like Archer Daniel Midlands, Gallo and McDonalds.
Walter E. Williams
December 30, 1996
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