Filthy Rich vs. Filthy Poor


Over the years I've written a lot about the virtue of liberty-'one of my books has that as its title, in fact'-yet even among many of my readers who find my arguments sound and my conclusions appealing there are many who don't seem to be able to shake their disdain for the rich. So, even lovers of liberty often think of the rich as they might of prostitutes'-sure, it's wrong to stop them, but they are an unsavory lot, aren't they!?

Why is this attitude toward the rich so widespread? Why did a recent reader find it so awful that some folks who can afford it take long vacations on the French or Italian Riviera and drive fancy cars and wear snappy outfits that cost a bundle? It wasn't some particular rich person who caught this reader's ire, someone who may have embezzled or otherwise illicitly gained his wealth. Not at all'-it was the fact of their being rich that annoyed my reader. This despite the fact that he was perfectly willing to leave the rich be, didn't believe they ought to be cut down to size or anything like that. It's just that they were, well, the filthy rich.

A few summers ago I had a chance to tour Versailles, where I took a close-up look at the digs of Marie Antoinette and her hubby, Louis the XVI. Actually, while the palace was unbelievably vast and sumptuous, it is often noted that the queen and the king were a rather economically minded pair, compared to others of their class, and it was not they but the nobility in France that stood in the way of various financial reforms that would have been to the benefit of the entire country.

No matter, the point that recurred to me during this visit, one I had thought of on similar visits to castles and palaces around the globe, is how easily people can still confuse the wealth that comes by way of conquest with wealth that is achieved. The French royalty, for example, or the Habsburgs or any other, became wealthy and spent enormous sums on its luxuries not in consequences of its mindful hard work, diligence or even simple good luck but because millions of others were kept in servitude and had their labors take from them. Unlike, say, a Bill Gates, Warren Buffett or the late Sam Walton, as well as many, many others who earned and keep earning their wealth through innovation, wheeling and dealing or other honest means, the bulk of the rich in the past gained it mainly by way of conquest and subjugation. Indeed, even in the economic theories of the past it was generally believed that wealth had to be expropriated, that it was all a matter of a zero-sum process: those who gained had to make others lose, there was simply no way around it. That, of course, created a widespread moral disapproval of riches, to the point that calling riches 'filthy' was nearly axiomatically true'-if by 'filth' is meant 'wrongful,' 'nasty,' or 'inexcusable.'

But matters have changed very seriously over the years, and at least in certain parts of the world those who are wealthy actually can very often honestly claim to have made themselves so, apart from that little bit of luck that's always handy in such cases. Now economic prosperity, even great abundance, is more akin to other types of excellence that human beings can achieve on their own initiative. A fabulous athlete or scientist or artist whose work is widely welcome and rewarded will, of course, manage to afford some very unusual perks in life. And now a fabulous financier or business genius can do likewise.

Even you and I, who are probably somewhere on the lower end of the middle class, economically, can afford journeys, clothing, dining, books, entertainment, and the rest that in the past only a small fraction of the human race could lay a hand on. Indeed, even in our time there are millions in various regions of the world who are systemically barred from even aspiring to such prosperity as is near at hand for most North Americans, Western Europeans, Australians and New Zealanders. But in these regions a different economic order has taken hold, albeit not unresisted, and wealth can in the case of many be attributed not to theft and expropriation but to achievement, earning power.

The rest, who are trapped in political economic systems where free trade and property rights are only dreams, would still be justified in thinking of the rich in their midst as filthy, mainly because they are rich from stealing from everyone else. So, perhaps one should show a bit of understanding, if not tolerance, toward those who still live with the bad habit of regarding with suspicion everyone who is rich.

Getting wealthy honestly is, after all, relatively new. It may take a while before we will all consider it as clean and treat poverty as filthy-'since very few of the poor will have any excuse for being poor any longer.

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Tibor R. Machan's picture
Columns on STR: 70

Tibor Machan is a professor of business ethics and Western Civilization at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., and recent author of Neither Left Nor Right: Selected Columns (Hoover Institution Press, 2004).  He is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.