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The special joy of deserving your earnings

Dr Chao Mbogho is a trailblazer. She has a Ph.D in Computer Science, and is one of our leading researchers, educators, and mentors. She recently tweeted something that caught my eye: “Receiving money that you’ve worked for is such a nice feeling.”

I thought immediately: Yes it is! And so many do not want to feel that special feeling. So many think their mission in life should be to revel in unearned, unmerited money—and they think that feeling is special.

I myself wrote here way back in 2006, addressing graduands contemplating their lives: “There are no easy paths. There are no substitutes for hard work, and no proxies for determined effort. Oh wait, of course there are. You could become a politician, a wheeler-dealer, a huckster. In Kenya you could probably make a lot of money in those occupations. But that money will burn a hole in your pocket, and ultimately in your life. Money stolen will eat away at the seams of your self-respect, and your life will unravel. You will be a king for a day and a miserable pauper for life.”

Soon after I was pondering Dr Chao’s tweet, the president of Zambia weighed in. Hakainde Hichilema has been in power for a year. His achievements to date are mixed, but he is a fresh face who inspires many to believe real change is possible. He recently made a speech that stirred up social media all over Africa. The president asked gathered Zambian leaders why they feel they have to drive high-end luxury vehicles worth $200,000 or more. He pointed out that forgoing one such vehicle could build toilets in markets across the land—a far more pressing need than allowing one fat-cat to park his behind in soft cushioning.

If you want the luxury ride, asked the president, why don’t you buy it yourself with your own money? You only pretend you can afford it, because it’s the taxpayer’s money you are using.

And that’s the crux of the matter. Unearned money, somebody else’s money, is very easily spent. I have, in the past, echoed the sentiments of Frédéric Bastiat, who asked us, in economic life, to see not only that which is seen, but also that which is not seen. When we spend big on luxury projects, we see the outputs of those projects. What do we not see? That those billions do not arrive from nowhere; they come from the pockets of taxpayers. Those taxpayers now have less to spend on things of their choice. There is no free money.

Successive generations of politicians, however, have come to regard government money as free money. Taxpayers have no choice but to cough it up; it sits there in huge quantities, awaiting disbursement. It did not have to worked for; there is no personal cost or sacrifice to spending it. Where does it often get spent? On giving the spenders unearned luxuries, and on projects that have no real need to show a return on investment.

Those who work hard for their money, those who strive to be productive in special ways, even those who do not earn directly but provide support systems for those who do—they all deserve every cheque that arrives, every ding in their bank account, every entry in their budget. They also encounter that special feeling Dr Chao was highlighting—this is mine, because I earned it. That is a quiet, prolonged satisfaction. It is not a feeling you will experience from diverting the monies of other earners.

Yes, there are many ways to be very rich without earning it. You can live off inheritances; you can be supported by relatives; you can position yourself for corruptions; you can engage in outright larcenies. You can revel in limos and post pics of all your hols. But you always know: someone else earned this; I only appropriated it. It’s already burning a hole in your being.

When money is earned properly, it is spent properly. When it came from personal toil and enterprise, it cannot be squandered. It can, of course, be spent on personal treats—but those, too, feel earned. And yet, as Will Rogers pointed out, “Too many people spend money they haven’t earned, to buy things they don’t want, to impress people they don’t like.”

I know I am beating a drum whose beats fly past most ears. But those who hear will hear. I hope two things echo in your thinking. At a personal level, the need to be an earner, not a user; and at the level of the nation, to make it very hard for taxpayers’ money to be misspent. There are governments anew taking power all over this land. Let them not be allowed to waste the money that others have earned.


I’m taking a short break. Back soon.

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Picture credit: Philip Pena from Pixabay