By Tom Ehrich

Every once in a while, in my daily writings, I fashion a phrase or sentence, then sit back and smile.

Nice! I say to myself. The words fit, they dance, they sparkle. Not always the most profound thought, but a delight to the writer’s eye.

I had a reader’s version of this “Nice!” moment today, when I read New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman’s description of Russian leader Vlaidimir Putin: “He was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple.”

What a perfect phrase! I thought. Not original to Friedman, it turns out. Used often against former President George Bush, the phrase goes back at least to 1986 and Oklahoma football coach Barry Switzer.

Still, a nice phrase, and when applied to those lucky enough to be born to wealth or, in Putin’s case, vast oil and gas reserves that he did nothing to create, it explains why, as Friedman put it, Putin “thinks he’s a genius and doesn’t need to listen to anyone.”

Luck isn’t greatness. Luck isn’t achievement. Luck isn’t worthy of praise. Luck is simply luck. Not a bad thing, as any baseball player who does get to third base after a lucky bounce will tell you. But not an act of genius, not an invitation to pronounce judgment on others, not an occasion for boasting.

In fact, luck can create a false sense of prowess and thus open the door to humiliating failure.

Some in today’s ultra-wealthy class got there by hard work, invention, and determination. Some of those, like Microsoft founder Bill Gates and investor Warren Buffett, move on to gratitude and generosity.

Others, however, were born into wealth, started life with investment trusts that insulated them against life, grew up in safe surroundings, attended superlative schools, and won praise without actually accomplishing anything. Those tend to be arrogant and harsh on their “inferiors.” It’s one reason corporate recruiters prefer state universities over Harvard and Princeton, where “entitlement” attitudes often cripple work ethic.

The great inequalities that President Obama vowed to address are more subtle than differences in bank accounts. Some in America start behind and, despite excellent minds and hard work, never catch up. Some start out ahead, by sheer luck, and not only lord it over others, but rig political and economic systems to their benefit.

That is the rot that caused the downfall of the Roman Empire, the crumbling of Europe’s great nations, and the corruption of modern Russia and China. Whether the unjust reign of the lucky will undermine America remains to be seen.

I am hopeful, but our own history as a nation shows that the lucky don’t play well with others. They think they deserve to win.