Economics and Jealousy

Theodore Dalrymple writes on the last group that you can still feel good about hating: the rich:

Of the rich it is permissible, and in some circles de rigueur, to speak disparagingly or hatefully. This, I imagine, is because it is widely supposed that if you hate the rich you must love the poor, and love of the poor, at least in theory, is the highest virtue. Unfortunately hatred is a much stronger political emotion, and vastly more effective in practice, than love was, is or ever will be. 


But who are the rich, apart from those shallow and grasping people with more money than I? Even if one takes the 1 per cent figure that has recently become so popular, in the United States this amounts to 3 million people. In order to hate 3 million people you have somewhat to disregard their individual characteristics, unless you believe that being rich turns people identical to one another. Even among the very rich indeed, that is to say the 0.001 per cent, with a few of whom I have had a slight acquaintance, I have noticed marked differences of character. 


Perhaps he believes, with Balzac, that behind every fortune lies a great crime; or alternatively that one man’s wealth is another man’s poverty. The zero-sum game model of an economy is, after all, a very common one of which it is not altogether easy, psychologically-speaking, to rid oneself. Who has never thought of fair shares, as if living in a modern economy were like attending a children’s party in which a cake was about to be cut for all the invited children?

When people talk about the tax code, you hear the word “fairness” a lot. But the simple fact is that a great many of the opinions about tax policy are driven by one thing: jealousy. “Fairness” is just the word we use to camouflage our feeling that people who have more than we do should be punished somehow.

Barak Obama has done more than any politician I can remember to feed this jealousy and turn it into out-and-out anger. Admittedly, it’s a strategy that’s paid off pretty well for him. But attaching social stigma to success and prosperity is not something that’s going to turn your economy into Bloomingdale’s at Christmas.

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