How to get rich by being evil
There are a lot of ways to become rich. Some people work hard and save their money. Some people win the lottery. Some people invent something wonderfully useful. An awful lot of people who get rich, though, do it by being evil. Here's a quick look at some evil tactics, and some thoughts on whether they can work for you.
Most of the people who get rich by being evil run a business. Running a business isn't evil, of course, and running a business is a lot of hard work, whether you're evil or not. It suits some people, but most people wouldn't be interested in working that hard, except for the chance to get rich. Just like there are lots of ways to get rich, there are lots of ways to get rich running a business. This post, though, is about three of the evil ones.
Privatize profits, socialize costs
The most crucial step in getting rich by being evil is to arrange things so that, as much as possible, you share your costs without having to share your profits.
As a society, we already share lots of costs: police and courts, roads and bridges, public schools and state universities. The key to getting rich by being evil is to build on that strategy.
Don't spend money to avoid leaking toxic chemicals into the ground water--the municipal water system is there to pay the costs to provide clean water. Don't negotiate on unequal terms with foreign suppliers of raw materials--the US military is a powerful tool to ensure access. If your business is in danger of failing, do your best to make it look like a failure could endanger the whole financial system--a central bank rescue won't make you rich, but it could keep you from being wiped out.
These are extreme examples, because it's actually pretty tough to socialize your regular costs, except where there's a strong tradition of governments providing those particular functions. As that last case shows, though, it's not so hard to socialize some of the risks. Simply arranging your business as a corporation does that to a certain extent--it turns your business venture into a "heads I win, tails you lose" proposition. If your risks pay off, you own a hugely successful business. If they don't, the corporation goes bust, not your personal finances. It's a scheme designed to encourage people to take risks they couldn't otherwise afford. That's great for people who are inclined that way anyway--at the expense of the rest of us.
Encourage people to take advantage of themselves
Some of your employees just want to do a day's work for a day's pay. Others want to make a career of working at your firm. Others want to participate in your successes and failures. In all these cases--and especially in the latter two--you can encourage them to take advantage of themselves for your benefit.
The key to making this work for you is to promise as little as possible, while hinting that your employees will share in the benefits of success.
For example, your start-up can safely share stock with employees, because before you go public you can issue so much new stock that the value of their shares gets diluted away to almost nothing. Make sure the calculation of bonuses includes at least one subjective measurement that you can use to control bonus payouts. Assure people that next year's raises and promotions will be better than this year's.
People won't settle for hints forever, of course, but almost any employee can be replaced with someone who's willing to give you the benefit of the doubt for a few months or a few years.
The strategy is pretty clear for getting your employees to take advantage of themselves for your benefit, but you can often get other people to do the same thing--investors, suppliers, customers, etc. Anytime you can get people to give more or take less, you come out ahead. Lots of businesses will provide a little slack for an important customer or supplier. Take that slack and turn it into profit that you keep.
Focus on business success to the exclusion of all other things
Finally, if you really want to get rich, make it the most important thing in your life.
I know plenty of people who have become quite well off simply by earning a good salary, living frugally, and investing the money they save. It works, but it typically takes decades--and even then you don't really get rich that way.
The only people I know who have become really rich did so through a combination of hard work and luck. By "hard work" I mean insanely hard work of the "80-hour week, no vacations, no hobbies, see your family twice a month" variety. That's not enough--it takes a certain amount of luck as well. But the work seems to be essential. (The only people I know who became really rich without working insanely hard either inherited wealth or married wealth. People win the lottery too, although I don't personally know anyone who did.)
There's a common thread to all of these things--pushing the costs off on other people: society at large, your employees, your friends and families. That's what (to my mind) makes these things evil.
It's easy to make the libertarian case that these practices aren't really evil. Rich people and the businesses they own pay taxes and are entitled to government services just like everyone else. Employees aren't slaves or prisoners and can choose to work for you or not. If work is what you enjoy most, it makes perfect sense for it to be your hobby as well as your job, and there's surely no matter more purely personal than the decisions you make with your family about how to divide your attention between them and work.
Further, It's important to note that lots of other people benefit when you get rich. At a minimum, the people you hire get jobs--maybe good jobs. You customers get products to buy--maybe better and cheaper products. Your suppliers get a market. Your community gets an expanded tax base. Your local charities get another rich person they can hit up for donations in support of the environment, local services, and the arts.
Still, when the costs fall on others, I think they should share in the profits. People who think like me, though, rarely become rich.