"For Love of Neighbor" is a new documentary film offering a hopeful vision for Christian engagement in politics. Click here to learn more.

A Gift That Keeps On Taking: How "Free" Kills

Arthur Brooks, in his lecture to college students at the first “Purpose & Prosperity” conference, emphasized the concept of earned success. He put foreword a challenge that struck me as both unique and incredibly insightful: “never take unearned money.”

This is radical because it is so contrary to the way we are used to thinking about a word associated only with positive reactions: the word “free.” But as Brooks’ lecture noted, the evidence seems to show that winning the lottery—the quintessence of unearned success—is one of the worst things that can happen to a person. At least in a temporal context, unearned success is dangerous.

The problem with free money is that it is completely detached from one’s self-worth. When personal gain is not a result of choices, but chance; not a matter of accomplishment, but charity, we sense that something is out of order in the natural way of things; that we have won the game only by cheating. If it is significant enough to alter one’s lifestyle, they are likely to experience decreased sensitivity to the relationship between work and reward. Any initial surge of excitement or relief eventually gives way to feelings of inadequacy and doubts about one’s true value in society.

It happens to nations as well as individuals or families. The challenge against prosperity and democracy in early post-Communist Russia, for example, was not a failure of the freedom philosophy, but the product of several generations of soviets, trained to disconnect wealth from merit, and property from stewardship. Decades of this social engineering had corrupted work ethic and Rule of Law—two essential components of a free and virtuous society.

When work and reward are separated, getting paid no longer has anything to do with talent or labor—it is merely a matter of how much you can get others to give you, through force or moral suasion, regardless of merit or exchange. Money becomes the empty, corrupt, and meaningless thing that we tend to imagine it is.

In reality, material wealth reflects an important principle in human relations: I have because I gave; applying my God-given abilities toward the service of another person has actually resulted in our mutual gain. And because I played a direct role in that process, I can see the evidence of my gifts, and my labor, and my worth. It is good to tell someone they are valuable. It is better to show them through self-sacrifice. But to leave an extra-large tip for quality service makes it tangible.

That may not seem as romantic as some would like, but the evidence of both the power of earned success, and the destructive capability of a work/reward separation is abundant. Whether or not someone understands this principle is a key factor in socioeconomic mobility. It is what helps an individual born into poverty become the owner of a successful enterprise, while wealthy heirs who have not learned this principle often squander any “privilege” they began with.

Unearned success is not actually success at all—it is a scam. And what follows is moral and economic atrophy.