If you look at the great philanthropists, you’ll find that the one thing they have in common is that they were very rich people who decided to give away much of the wealth they created.
What is also true is that many of them, particularly Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller, were pilloried for their wealth creation.
In this Washington Post opinion piece titled “Being Rich Damages Your Soul. We Used to Know That.” the authors (University of Virginia professor Charles Mathewes and graduate student Evan Sandsmark) argue that wealth is immoral.
“After all,” they write, “the Buddha, Aristotle, Jesus, the Koran, Jimmy Stewart, Pope Francis and now even science all agree: if you are wealthy and are reading this, give away your money as fast as you can.”
Jesus, of course, taught, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God.”
Pope Francis has also excoriated the rich. In one audience, given in February 2016, he declared that many people possessing “wealth and power” as a result, see their wealth “experienced as a privilege, with selfishness and high-handedness, they are transformed into instruments of corruption and death.”
Now it is true that some rich people do act that way, with the leading example being President Trump. If Mathewes and Sandsmark want to portray President Trump as a horrible example of how not to live, I wouldn’t disagree with them. They could even throw in Anthony Scaramucci as Exhibit B.
But I don’t think most rich people flaunt their wealth.
Indeed, I suspect the number of wealthy people who pride themselves on their thrift rather than extravagance far exceeds those who feel compelled to conspicuously consume.
Think of Chuck Feeney and Warren Buffett, for example, two very wealthy people who live very modestly. I remember Buffett once saying that one reason he bought Dairy Queen is that he really likes their products. I also think Buffett deserves credit for never leaving Omaha and for living in a house he bought in the 1950s.
Mathewes and Sandsmark go farther than many critics of the wealthy by claiming that science shows that rich people have more vices than people who aren’t rich. They’re not only bad drivers, but they steal candy that is meant for kids.
One of their primary sources is a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2012 by a research team led by University of California (Berkeley) psychologist Paul Piff.
Piff and his associates conducted seven studies designed to show that rich people were greedy and amoral. But the problem with the studies is that in no case did Piff et al. actually prove that their test subjects were rich.
Two of the studies, for example, consisted of Piff’s team standing on a street corner and looking at drivers with bad habits, like cutting off pedestrians who were trying to cross the street. They concluded that people who drove expensive cars like Mercedes and Lexus were poorer drivers than those who drove cheaper cars. But they didn’t interview the drivers of the cars; they made an assumption that people who drive flashy cars are rich, which may or may not be true.
What about the study that Mathewes and Sandsmark say show that rich people are “even more likely to take candy that is meant for children”? Piff and his colleagues hired 129 Berkeley undergraduates, none older than 27, and asked them what their incomes were. They then put them in a room where they showed a candy jar they said was for kids and left the students alone with the candy. Students who said they were rich were more likely to swipe candy than those who said they were poor.
Now, like most psychology experiments, it’s hard to say how the behavior of undergraduates can be extrapolated to show that they reflect the behavior of adults. But it’s much more provocative to say, “rich people steal candy” than “college students who said they were rich stole candy.”
At the end of the piece, the authors explain their motivation for criticizing the rich.
“Certain conservative institutions, enjoying the backing of billionaires such as the Koch brothers, have thrown a ton of money at pseudo-academics and ‘thought leaders’ to normalize and legitimate obscene piles of lucre. They produced arguments that suggest that high salaries naturally flowed from extreme talent and merit, thus baptizing wealth as simply some excellent people’s wholly legitimate rewards.”
Well, I know that Charles G. Koch, when taken to lunch by the Financial Times, went to the Koch Industries company cafeteria—and Koch Industries doesn’t have an executive dining room.
I also know that John and Carol Saeman, prominent Catholic donors in Denver, said in the Washington Post in 2014 that they were friends of Charles Koch, and if Koch and Pope Francis ever met, they’d agree on the importance of fighting poverty as the primary job of philanthropy.
I also see that the University of Virginia in 2013 celebrated completing a $3 billion capital campaign begun in 2006. I know of no think tank, on the left or the right that has attempted a similar fundraising effort.
Finally, one must ask: who is this horrible person who argues that rich people deserve their wealth?
Follow the links on the online version of Mathewes and Sandsmark’s piece and you find the villain is the Niskanen Center’s Brink Lindsey.
In 2009 Lindsey published a long essay critiquing the notion posed by economist Paul Krugman that life would be better if America returned to the economy of the 1950s, where the gap between the highest and lowest paid workers is far smaller than today. Lindsey shows we can’t turn the clock back because of a lot of social trends: more low-skilled immigrants, more competition for high-skilled people, and “assortative mating,” where rich people tend to marry rich people.
“The rise in income inequality does raise some issues of legitimate public concern. And reasonable people disagree hotly about what can and ought to be done to ensure that America’s prosperity is more widely shared. But the caricature of postwar history put forward by Krugman and other purveyors of nostalgianomics won’t get us anywhere. Reactionary fantasies about the good old days never do.”
So Lindsey is not mindlessly celebrating wealth; he’s describing economic trends. That hardly makes him an advocate of plutocracy.
I agree with Mathewes and Sandsmark that rich people ought to give more. But using questionable psychological experiments and mischaracterizations of writers they disagree with is hardly a way to promote their case.
Photo credit: Truthout.org via Visual hunt / CC BY-NC-SA (visual modifications were made by Philanthropy Daily)