There are exactly two ways that wealth is acquired, and only one of them is morally justifiable.
But before we get to that, let’s define what wealth is. Strictly speaking, wealth is the value of the assets and resources an individual owns and has use of, including their own body, their labor, and their property.
Wealth can be created, destroyed, or transferred from one party to another. Imagine, for example, a field that has been plowed, fertilized, and planted with wheat. In a few months’ time a crop of wheat will exist that didn’t before. Now imagine that a week before harvest that same field is consumed by fire. That wheat can no longer be consumed or turned into other goods.
Production and Voluntary Exchange
As hinted at, one way wealth can be acquired is through production. A person can apply their labor (physical, mental, or otherwise) to create goods and services that did not previously exist, which then belong to them. This could be done by arranging wood into the structure of a barn, arranging lines of code into a computer application, arranging gravel and cement into a driveway, and so on.
What has been produced can then be utilized by the owner, or in most cases given in exchange for other goods and services that are valued by and useful to the producer in question, typically facilitated by a monetary system. The baker, for example, turns flour into bread, sells it, then uses the proceeds to buy meat and vegetables from the grocer to feed his family.
Theft and Violence
The other way wealth can be acquired is through theft, which is the taking wealth from an individual without their consent. Unlike production, theft is necessarily parasitic because it requires first that wealth be produced before it is taken, by threat or application of violence, from the individual who created it.
I trust that it is not necessary to make the case for why theft it intrinsically wrong and immoral. I will, however, press the point that whether theft is perpetrated by an individual, a group of individuals, or worst of all by a group that calls themself The Government, it is wrong in all cases. Theft is theft, regardless of the identity of the perpetrator and regardless of their motives.
Imagine I pull a gun on you and demand your wallet. You hand it over and I then take the contents of your wallet and donate them to the American Red Cross so they can perform blood drives, teach people CPR, etc. Is my initial action of separating you from your wallet something other than theft due to my motives and intentions?
Or consider that rather than acting alone I bring 9 of my friends along to boost your wallet. Am I no longer robbing you because a group of us have decided collectively that we would like to be the new owners of your wallet?
It is easy to see, then, that when the State confiscates property from its rightful owners its actions can only be defined as systematic and legalized theft. Even if the wealth is applied to building roads, or operating schools, or sending checks to the poor. Oprah may be able to give you all the tacos in the world, but the State can’t give you anything it hasn’t first stolen from someone else.
While this principle is actually quite easy to understand, in practice people are generally resistant to it because its application can be rather costly. We have been duped into believing theft is OK as long as it’s perpetrated by the State, along with may other evils carried out in the name of the greater good, and we lack the imagination and moral conviction necessary to abolish the tyranny of the State in favor of a free and voluntary system that respects and enshrines each individual’s personal liberty.