Know Thy Enemy: a Classier Take on Class Warfare
by Sable Levy
In case you didn’t know it, the ultra-rich are widely vilified—particularly within movements such as Occupy Wall Street and the political campaign of Bernie Sanders, which has captured the hearts of many a burgeoning millennial. Who are the ultra-rich? And why are they widely vilified? Many are executives, or work in industries such as finance, law, medicine, and technology—with the top 1% having an average household income of $1.2 million in 2008, according to federal tax data.1 While some inherited substantial wealth, many are self-made.
As for their vilification, it has a lot to do with what is called greed. Did ever a word sound more vicious? Greed is ugly, sinful avarice; the root of all evil; or so, at least, many of us are taught. While some look at the ultra-rich and see success, others see only greed. A growing belief that the profit motive equals greed has given rise to a present-day phenomenon: anyone who runs a profitable business is a target for people to hate. Given the beliefs that the profit motive is equivalent to greed, and that greed is evil, it’s easy to understand why the ultra-rich are widely vilified.
But is the animus justified?
Well, not all rich people are evil, of course. Nonetheless, lots of highly ambitious people are seen as greedy even when they contribute nothing but immense value to society. If it is true, as many people believe, that the ultra-rich necessarily achieve (at least some of) their wealth by exploiting and preying on the non-rich, then the animus would seem justified. So, let’s explore that claim, which points to some nuances of wealth, and try to determine whether it is true.
Is wealth predicated upon adverse exploitation?
For dictators, slave-owners, shysters, and others of their ilk, the answer is certainly “yes.” It is important to note, however, that there are essentially two ways a person can make money. Herein lies the nuance. You can either create a product or provide a service that people are voluntarily willing to exchange money for, creating trade-based value; or you can employ coercive, unjust means to make a profit—wherein money ceases to reflect the creation of value, but rather the plundering thereof.
Some rich people deserve our scorn, but most of them do not. Placing all rich people in one category blinds us to the crucial distinction inherent in how money can be made. The only people who deserve to be vilified for their money are the ones who acquired their money unjustly—whether through cronyism, fraud, rent-seeking, or predation.2
Sometimes someone makes a point so well, you simply have to let them do the talking.
Steve Conover, who created the above graphic, writes: “Focusing on the right enemy would present a target-rich environment that includes anyone (of any income level) who is cheating to win, any business or union (of any size) with its snout in the public trough, any politician filling that trough and feeding those snouts for reciprocal gain, and any group using the political system (at any level) to maintain its monopoly, or its winning ‘edge’ against less-well-connected competitors.
“Among ‘the rich’ are many entertainment superstars, artists, CEOs, inventors, and entrepreneurs who got where they are because they produced things that entertain us, make us more productive, save us money, or save us time. Can we really say with a straight face that all of them are villains because of their huge incomes? Of course not. They are rich because they earned it—and because they earned it, they do not deserve to be targets in a class war.
“The distinguishing characteristic of the enemy is not the level of income or wealth; rather, it is whether that income or wealth was earned. The true heroes in our economy are the producers and earners, and those who protect them; they can be found all the way up and down the income ladder, and class warfare should defend and reward them instead of targeting them. Conversely, the proper targets are the class that includes cheaters, predators, pirates, and parasites— who can also be found at all income levels, whether they are hiding under beds to get away with stealing watches, or head-faking trusting clients to steal capital gains.”3
So, should we all embrace this nuanced view of wealth?
Naturally, I think yes, we should. But to tell you the truth, I’d much rather hear your thoughts on the matter. That would be a lot more interesting. So tell me, what do you think?
1 The Economist: Who Exactly Are the 1%? http://www.economist.com/node/21543178
2 Conversely, people who earn their money through honest voluntary trade deserve to be praised.
3 Conover, Steve (2014-12-03). Neutering the National Debt: How Reagan Got It Right, and How Today’s Left and Right Get It Wrong