In the wake of the endless controversies surrounding Donald Trump’s campaign, it’s easy to forget that most of us rightfully pride ourselves on our opposition to racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, and other forms of unjust discrimination. But we rarely even discuss another prevalent form of prejudice: the demonization and dehumanization of the successful. This prejudice is central to today’s chief economic concern: the campaign against economic inequality.
Not everyone worried about our economic challenges is bigoted, of course. There are real problems we all should be concerned about, whether it’s declining opportunity (especially for those starting at the bottom), slowing economic progress, the pitiful state of education, or the political favors bestowed on some businesses.
In our new book on inequality, “Equal Is Unfair: America’s Misguided Fight Against Income Inequality,” my co-author Yaron Brook and I address those problems and many others. But whatever one’s view of our challenges, nothing can justify the way many—including presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders—are treating those who have achieved economic success.
The Double Standards for Rich People
Consider just a few of the behaviors that inequality critics apparently consider acceptable when dealing with wealthy Americans.
Collective Judgments. Virtually everyone agrees we should judge people by their actions and the content of their character, not by the (real or manufactured) sins or shortcomings of other members of whatever group they happen to belong to.
Regarding businessmen, for example, we should condemn those who lie, cheat, and steal. But we should condemn them as individuals for their dishonest and predatory actions. By the same token, we should praise individuals who earn their wealth through ingenuity and effort—not make them pay for other people’s sins.
Yet what we hear from today’s inequality critics is across-the-board denunciations of successful businessmen. Sanders contends “the business model of Wall Street”—which employees hundreds of thousands of productive Americans—“is fraud.” A headline for a Sean McElwee article in Salon tells us “Rich white people are ruining the planet.” Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett write in their popular book “The Spirit Level” that “Rather than adopting an attitude of gratitude toward the rich, we need to recognize what a damaging effect they have on the social fabric.” Replace “the rich” with “Hispanics” or “women” or “Jews” in that sentence, and ask yourself: isn’t this precisely the sort of prejudice we object to when it is targeted at other groups?
Dehumanization. Prejudice encourages dehumanization—it encourages demonizing “the other” so they are seen as less than human and therefore unworthy of respect. This is precisely what inequality critics are trying to do to “the 1 percent.”
To take just one example, Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman has claimed that rich Americans are “less likely to exhibit empathy, less likely to respect norms and even laws, more likely to cheat, than those occupying lower rungs on the economic ladder”—they are, in short, “spoiled egomaniacs.” Well, if so, what concern should we have for their rights and their dignity?
The Wealthy Are People, Too
A common myth is that you cannot be a victim of injustice unless you are powerless or disadvantaged, or that an injustice is okay if it’s aimed at someone who isn’t powerless or disadvantaged. But those are nothing more than crude rationalizations for injustice.
We need to ask ourselves: Do we really think of rich individuals as human beings? Or do we view them as cartoon villains—one-dimensional stereotypes not dissimilar to the caricatures propagated by racists, misogynists, and Jew-haters?
When I discuss unfair treatment of successful businessmen, I almost always hear comments like, “Oh, boohoo. What do the rich have to complain about? Look at everything they have!” This reflects a crass materialism, which amounts to the notion that money solves everything, and that no one can be hurt by or object to mistreatment unless he’s poor.
But have we ever stopped to ask ourselves: What if a rich individual’s dreams mean as much to him as my dreams do to me? What if he wants to be respected for his achievements the way I want to be respected for mine? What if he has made himself into a moral human being—doesn’t he deserve respect and admiration, and isn’t it an indictment of our society when good people are treated like villains?
A Cynical Justification for Government-Sponsored Injustice
Exploitation. When prejudice gets injected into the political system, it leads to the government inflicting tremendous injustices on the victims.
More and more, our political system treats economically successful Americans as resources for “society’s” desires rather than as sovereign individuals with an inalienable right to their own pursuit of happiness. Witness, for example, the plans Democratic candidates have for this country. Free health care—paid for by “the rich.” Free college—paid for by “the rich.” Larger Social Security payments—paid for by “the rich.”
Of course, these demands are supported by the claim that “the rich” aren’t paying their “fair share.” Set aside the fact that affluent Americans bear the vast, vast majority of the tax burden. Do we ever so much as ask: Did they honestly earn their money? Did they gain it by dealing voluntarily with other people, through an incalculable number of win-win trades? Don’t they have a right to use their wealth to pursue their own hopes and dreams—the same way we each have the right to use our wealth to pursue our hopes and dreams?
No, we don’t ask those questions. Preventing us from asking those questions is the goal of the demonization and dehumanization of “the rich.” Whether it’s President Obama dismissing individual achievement when he declares “you didn’t build that,” or Sanders claiming it is immoral for some people to prosper while others are struggling, or Barbara Ehrenreich arguing that “To the extent that any demonization is going on, one can’t help thinking that the rich have been, perhaps inadvertently, asking for it”—all of it is aimed at erasing the knowledge that economically successful individuals are human beings and that exploiting other human beings is wrong.
Stripping the Rewards of Virtue
This is prejudice, plain and simple. What’s worse, it is not directed toward traits that have no bearing on a person’s character, it is directed at something that is in fact a moral achievement.
Business success—that is, making a profit through productive achievement, not special favors from Washington—is something that deserves our respect and admiration. As we argue in “Equal Is Unfair,” this kind of success is enormously difficult, and it is profoundly virtuous.
We live in an advanced technological society, and enjoy a level of wealth, health, comfort, and opportunity that our ancestors could not have dreamed of. What made it possible? The effort of producers, on every level of ability, but with the most credit going to the men and women of extraordinary ability: the inventors, entrepreneurs, and investors who drive progress—and earn a fortune in the process.
It’s time we stopped saying “screw you” and started saying “thank you.”