Friday, August 31, 2012

Wealth, Hard Work, and Virtue

Listening to Mitt Romney's speech from last night, a constant strain in conservative rhetoric really stood out, the conflation of wealth, success, and virtue. The idea is that if you have a lot of money, it means that you worked harder than those who did not and thereby you deserve it because you have chosen to make yourself a better person than those others. Part of the move assuages the conscience of those who do not want to help the less fortunate -- they are that way not because of larger social forces that can be changed, but because they are inferior human beings who need to learn their lesson. Part of the move is to make one feel better about oneself. You have something others don't, it isn't because of larger social forces that you were given this fortunate accident, it is because of your hard work and proper decisions. If you have it, you deserve it, after all if you didn't deserve it you wouldn't have it -- after all you built it.

This line of reasoning has always rubbed me the wrong way because I find myself much less sympathetic towards the wealthy than others, probably for biographical reasons. I grew up surrounded by rich people. Some of them are among the people I most admire in the world -- good, caring folks who are smart and work incredibly hard, people to whom I would trust my life. But others, many others, a whole lot of others, were lazy, stupid, arrogant jerks whose money insulated them from the real world, the actual suffering in it, any sense of empathetic connectedness to others, and any sense of responsibility for making the world a better place for anyone other than themselves. These obnoxious and nasty people knew that they would maintain their status, they would need only to be who they are and do what was expected of them to maintain their undeserved privileged place. They knew they would be -- and I have no doubt that they are now -- rich. This expectation leads to a sense of entitlement. They have always had it, so they should always have it because that is just the way things are. It means that the rules that apply to the rest of us, don't apply to them. It is their birthright to get what they want when they want it.

This, of course, is the opposite of virtue. The worldview of many wealthy folks is not that of a healthy adult who will leave the world a better place than they found it and create themselves in a fashion that actualized their potential for a well-lived life.

There are lots of hard working people who are not rich. There are a lot of hard working people who are not good. There are a lot of rich people who do not work hard. There are a lot of good people who are not rich. And believe it or not, there are a lot of good people who do not work hard. The three are completely independent of each other. I know it politically expedient to conflate these ideas, but they really have nothing to do with each other.