The famous Dutch painter, Vincent van Gogh, died by suicide in 1890 at the tender age of 37. He lived in poverty for many years prior to his death. Although I have long admired the great man’s paintings, I had inadequate knowledge of his struggles during his lifetime. I learned a lot more about him only recently, after reading Marta Molnar’s superb novel, The Secret Life of Sunflowers. Molnar’s account brought into sharp focus the sometimes-cruel nature of life.

Each person is born with certain gifts that can be leveraged to earn a living. Outward beauty, athletic and musical skills, and academic brilliance are prime examples of such endowments. But beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Simply having talent or some positive attribute is often not enough. One also has to be lucky to be in a place and time where there are at least a pair of eyes to behold and appreciate what it is that a given individual could offer society. And, in some cases, those pairs of eyes doing the beholding have to belong to people with influence—social, economic or political.

Van Gogh never had that luck in his lifetime. According to Molnar, the powerful people in the European art world, whose validation would have helped bring van Gogh into prominence, rather dismissed his paintings as having no aesthetic value. Some even called him a “talentless hack.” Consequently, he struggled to sell any of his work, and had to depend on his younger brother, Theo van Gogh, for financial support. Vincent is said to have felt at one point that he had become a burden on Theo. That sense, together with his yearslong struggle with mental illness, likely contributed to his suicide.

Due to their close relationship, Vincent’s death sent Theo into a downward spiral. Theo died less than a year later, leaving behind his wife, Johanna Bonger, and their newly born son, Vincent Willem van Gogh, named after Theo’s older brother.

After her husband’s death, Johanna was determined not to let the hundreds of her brother-in-law’s paintings, which she had inherited, fall into obscurity. She mounted a desperate effort to get art exhibitions to display some of the works, both in France, where they lived at the time of Vincent’s death, and in their native Netherlands. That was a time in which women were not even supposed to have opinions about anything. Johanna therefore faced much greater obstacles in that male-dominated art world than what Vincent ever confronted during his lifetime. But with persistence, she ultimately achieved her goal. After her death, her son Willem picked up the baton and later spearheaded the effort that led to the opening of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam in 1973.

A single van Gogh painting can sell for tens of millions of dollars nowadays. His Orchard with Cypresseslandscape, which was part of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s collection, sold for $117 million at a Christie’s auction in New York in 2022. It is quite heartbreaking to think that this genius couldn’t even find the money to feed himself when he was alive.

Reading about the van Gogh family history reignited some questions that I have been thinking about in the last several years. My own life experiences and observations have led me to conclude that there are two broad categories of people in this world: the lucky, and the unlucky. And for me the question is this: What do those of us who have been lucky to have any modicum of success in our lives owe the unlucky?

Generally speaking, hard work, sacrifice, and persistence are the main ingredients for success in anything in life. As the ancient philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca said, luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity. In essence, being in the unlucky category could be deemed a temporary condition. We expect—as we should—people to keep working hard and tenaciously towards whatever goals they have in front of them. That is what Johanna did admirably. But what if the elusive luck takes too long to emerge, or doesn’t come at all, as in the case of Vincent van Gogh until his death?

In most societies, taxation is the mechanism that is used to convey compassion from the lucky to the not-yet-lucky. Taxes fund the state welfare programs that support the needy. But paying taxes has always been a contentious issue almost everywhere, since Biblical times. The problem in most cases is that it is difficult to determine who is deserving of the benevolence, because they have tried everything possible and things just haven’t worked out (yet), and who is not, because they have fallen on hard times due to lack of effort or irresponsible behavior.

Taxation is most controversial in large, multi-racial societies. Humans are extremely tribal creatures. Therefore, quite often, our level of generosity is not as high as it could be when we are called upon to share our resources with people from other racial and religious groups. We don’t feel the same degree of kinship toward them as we do to our own. It is the reason we frequently hear highly positive things about the welfare systems in Scandinavian countries. Largely, those nations have ethnically homogenous populations that are held tightly together by their strong cultural bonds.

The thought of paying for another person’s profligate lifestyle can be quite unpleasant. But Vincent van Gogh’s life story shows that there is a strong moral case for having an effective system of taxation to help alleviate the suffering of the unlucky.