Home / Community Comment /

Success isn’t merited; it occurs within a context

Do those who achieve what we define today as success actually merit it? Are those who attain wealth, power, and status really better than the rest of us? Republicans tend to stress the importance of the individual. Wealth, in particular, becomes the measure of a person’s value. Intelligence, imagination, ambition, and perseverance are seen as qualities shared by those who are successful.

That attitude was evident in the uproar by Republicans when President Obama said success in business does not mean you did it on your own. Some believed he diminished individual achievement by suggesting that parents, family resources, education, timing, direct or indirect government assistance, and plain old good luck played a role.

They find those lacking these qualities somehow less respectable and less virtuous, and therefore not entitled to share in the benefits one would normally associate with the good life. If they don’t earn it, they don’t deserve decent housing, health care, or a good education.

In other words: If you can’t make it, it’s your own fault. You get what you deserve and there is no obligation for the successful to “sacrifice” some of what they have achieved to benefit others. The common good does not include the uninitiated – the ignorant, lazy, disabled, sick, or illegal.

Success is not an abstraction; it occurs within a context. You play the hand you are dealt and the fact you get good cards does not make you any more deserving than a bad hand makes you less so.
Does God really love the haves more than the have-nots? Is worldly success a sign of His approval? Many believers seem to think so. I don’t!

I no more merit being born healthy, the son of a successful doctor in a loving family with the money to educate and care for me than does someone born to a poor, drug-addicted mother in a dysfunctional family with little hope of the guidance and education so necessary today to achieve even the basics.

As a judge, it became clear to me that many of those who appeared before me had few, if any, opportunities to be other than what they were. Had I been born into the same situation, I could see myself on a similar path.

At least the Democrats recognize our responsibility to provide a safety net to provide basic services to the less fortunate, including the opportunity to break free of the limitations they encounter, often through no fault of their own.

The belief that you get what you deserve is dangerous. It becomes an excuse not to share with the less fortunate. It undermines the “common good,” a fundamental element of a fair and stable society. Of course, it requires the redistribution of wealth. But that doesn’t mean there is no more wealth and no poverty. It only means the wealthy are less rich and the poor are less disadvantaged.

Government’s role, as I see it, is to find that balance – no easy task. It does require an awareness that merit, when earned, is built on a foundation over which we have no more control than one born into privation.

The notion of “noblesse oblige” – to whom much is given, much is expected – applies as much to sharing wealth as it does to talent. The converse is: To whom little is given, much is owed. How much and in what form is the responsibility of wise leaders.

Wisdom appears to be in short supply these days.

James W. Dolan is a retired Dorchester District Court judge who now practices law.