Short answer--The wicked prosper because they have set up the system. They have us playing games of their invention. They set the odds and eventually the house wins.
Here's how it happened.
Ten thousand years ago, or for that matter, five thousand years ago, or for that matter one thousand years ago, or for that matter five hundred years ago if you were a sociopath what you did was gather a bunch of your psycho buddies into an armed horde with you as the boss and you roamed around the countryside killing people and taking their stuff. The people you didn't kill you bullied into servitude. The only thing to keep you from doing that would have been a competing band of psychopaths under the direction of a rival sociopath. I'd be willing to bet that just about every Alexander, Nero, Catherine, Ptolemy, Julius, Cleopatra, Harold, Crazy Horse, Henry and Hammurabi, Ghengis, Shaka or Vlad could be certified dangerously mad by modern standards.
The sociopaths and psychopaths who functioned effectively became warlords. Those warlords that functioned most effectively of all became kings. In fact, military success was for millennia viewed both as evidence of God's favor and of a king's fitness to rule. Kings throughout the ages have had three essential functions: 1) Make war 2) Make public policy 3) Make princes.
Alliances between these warlords were cemented by marrying the son of one psycho to the daughter of another, and those recessive genes started stacking up even as restrictions on their antisocial behavior crumbled. For 95% of the history of civilization, human affairs were directed by these dangerously aberrant and overdressed guys and their genetically tainted spawn. They decided what values were lavishly rewarded and what values were mercilessly punished. "Loyalty" was rewarded while "skepticism" was punished. "Bravery" was rewarded while "caution" was equated with cowardice, and so on.
And as if that weren't bad enough...
Ten thousand (blah blah blah) or even five hundred years ago, if you were a paranoid schizophrenic you became a holy man. There was something mysterious to normal folks about the workings of your mind and it was assumed that you were in touch with the supreme being and had some kind of handle on his infinite wisdom. Life for the people under the warlords was hell, so you offered them heaven in the afterlife, or at least a reincarnated life in the afterlife if they were good and did as they were told. They bought it because they were desperate and you were sincere, and you were sincere because you believed your own delusions and the abovementioned kings favored you as long as you helped keep the people in line. Psychopaths and schizophrenics established an enduring and mutually beneficial good cop/bad cop relationship.
In this way the most convincing delusional paranoid schizophrenics and the very cream of the violent psychopaths held the reigns of civilization for over ten thousand years. If you wonder why the world seems to be built upside down it is because the world IS built upside down. The foundation of our civilization was poured by violent, selfish, mean, wrong people; and the values that they gave us, values that we still embrace today, tend to serve those at the top more often than they serve society at large.
We still hold dear the values that the psychos and schizos gave us. Those values are so strongly imprinted on us that we reinforce them without thinking. They are our most fundamental values (Dare I say "family values?") and they exist in the most universal and basic elements of our society.
Take for example schoolyard ethics. Who doesn't remember "Finders keepers, losers weepers?" Not long ago I heard an adult say that with a straight face in a property dispute.
Take a look at the values reinforced by the Boy Scouts. A scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent. I don't mean to imply that the Boy Scouts are evil. Those twelve values are certainly positive values and they should be reinforced, but they are not the only values that could have been mentioned. They are a carefully selected subset of values, so I assume somebody chose to include those he felt most important and exclude those he felt of less importance to a young man. The values of Scouting are therefore among the most essential to western civilization and that those values originally served the purposes of the schizophrenics (the church) and psychopaths (the state).
Look at the redundant values loyal, obedient and reverent and compare them to values which are conspicuously NOT mentioned, like skeptical, thoughtful, independent, curious, inquisitive. "Sensible" is nowhere to be found. Nor is "inventive." Where is "self-reliant?" Trustworthy is mentioned (it implies obedience to another person), but honesty (a more internal, intransitive value) is not. Many of those twelve basic values can simply be combined and restated, "Submit to authority."
The good news is that since about a.d. 1400 the tide has been turning. The manpower shortage at the end of the great plague made a man's labor valuable, and commoners started asserting themselves economically. The magna carta limited the powers of King John. The English civil war further reduced the effect of inherited power. The American Revolution eliminated hereditary offices from its government altogether. The Bill of Rights is a list of things that the government may not do. Before that, pretty much any abridgement of human rights was fair game if they had the paperwork in order. The French Revolution and WWI swept monarchies from Europe, and the advent of mass communication and universal literacy makes it possible for the governed to keep tabs on and demand answers of those who hold high office.
Has that change been for good or ill? Well, consider that somebody living in the middle ages was technologically on a par with somebody living ten thousand years before and that both of them could have expected to live to the age of about thirty-five. The explosion of progress in technology, agriculture, medicine, politics and anything else you care to name has come after the limitation of the powers of the aristocracy.
Still, when you root around in the basement at the foundation of our civilization, you still find emphasis on values like "obedient," "brave," "trustworthy," "loyal." Things you want a dog to be and things a King wants you to be. These are the vestiges of the monarchical system, and while they still have their place today they might be tempered with more humane and thoughtful values so that charismatic leaders don't use those values to bullshit us into doing things we might later regret. Like the crusades, for example. Damn! What were we thinking?
And by the way, how many 20th century despots might we never have heard of if "skeptical" had been valued as highly as "loyal?" How many atrocities might have been avoided and how many wars left unfought?
One last thought. Just two-hundred-twenty-five years ago there was no place on earth except maybe Holland that I could have written this essay and not have been thrown into prison.
In case you're wondering what happened to "WHY DO THE WICKED PROSPER, part I," just as I was about to post it, I saw that guy who wrote "Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus," talking and he apparently came up with the same thoughts independently. Since he covered the material pretty well, I thought I'd just nutshell it for you here at the end of part II. So here goes:
Selfish people who pursue money to the exclusion of all else are called "greedy." Selfish people who pursue power to the exclusion of all else are called "ambitious." Therefore it should not surprise anybody that selfish, greedy and ambitious people seem to end up with lots of wealth and power.