It is sometimes asked whether or not everyone can be wealthy. This depends, obviously enough, on what is meant by “wealthy.” Determining what “wealthy” means requires sorting out the nature of wealth.
As might be imagined, there is a fair amount of debate about the true nature of personal wealth. While this oversimplifies things, a fairly standard view of wealth is that it consists of the net economic value of a person’s assets minus their liabilities. To be a bit more specific, these assets typically include possessions (cars, guns, art, computers, books, appliances, and so on), monetary resources (cash, for example) and capital resources. Not everyone buys into the stock view, of course. For example, Emma Goldman claimed that “real wealth consists in things of utility and beauty, in things that help to create strong, beautiful bodies and surroundings inspiring to live in. But if man is doomed to wind cotton around a spool, or dig coal, or build roads for thirty years of his life, there can be no talk of wealth.” As another example, some thinkers include non-economic goods (such as knowledge) within the realm of wealth. To keep thing simple and within our current economic system, I will limit the discussion to the “stock” account of wealth (that is, economic assets).
In our current economic system, it is obviously not the case that everyone is wealthy. When this fact is brought up, some folks like to claim that even the poor of today are wealthier than the wealthy of the past. In some ways, this is true. After all, the typically poor person in North America or the United Kingdom has possessions that not even the greatest pharaoh or Caesar possessed (such as a microwave oven). In many other ways, this is not true. After all, a wealthy noble of the past would have land, structures, gold, art, and so on that would make him a wealthy man even today. Also, there is the obvious fact that there are poor people today who are as poor as the poorest people in human history in that they possess just the tatters on their backs and just enough food to not die (at least for the moment). In any case, the fact that the sum total of wealth of humanity is greater now than in the past (even taking into account that there are so many more of us) does not tell us much beyond that (such as whether the current distribution is just or whether we can all be wealthy or not).
Getting back to the main subject, what needs to be determined is what is meant by “wealthy.” As noted above, I am limiting my discussion to economic wealth, but a bit more needs to be said.
In some ways, wealth can be seen as being analogous to height. A person has height if they have any vertical measurement at all. Likewise, a person has wealth if she has any economic assets in excess of her liabilities. This could be as little as a single penny or as much as billions of dollars. Obviously, everyone could (in theory) have wealth, just as everyone can have height. But, of course, a person is not wealthy just because s/he has wealth, no more than a person is tall simply because s/he has height. On the other side, lacking wealth is described as being destitute and lacking height is described as being short.
Continuing the analogy, being wealthy or wealthier can be seen as analogous to being tall or taller. Being tall means having more height than average and being taller than another means having more height than that person. Likewise being wealthy would seem to mean having more wealth than average and being wealthier than another means having more wealth than that person. If this view is correct, then we cannot all be wealthy anymore than we can all be tall. Obviously, we could all have the same height or the same wealth, but the terms “tall” and “wealthy” would have no application in these cases. As such, we cannot all be wealthy-if we had the same amount of wealth, then no one would be wealthy.
It could be contended that being wealthy is not a matter of comparison to the wealth of other people, but rather a matter of having economic assets that meet a specified level. Depending on how that level was specified, then everyone could (in theory) be wealthy. Of course, the question of whether or not such a level should be considered wealthy or not would be a matter of debate.
It might be contended that focusing on whether or not everyone can be wealthy is not as important (or interesting) as the question of whether or not everyone can be well-off in the sense of having adequate resources for a healthy and meaningful existence. This is, of course, a subject for another time.