Being perceived as anti–working class is a cardinal sin in American politics. Working-class people are seen as the unappreciated engine of American growth. Hillary Clinton discovered this lesson when she was criticized for calling Donald Trump supporters a “basket of deplorables.” But interestingly, expressing contempt for the upper class is quite tolerable.
Rich people are frequently ridiculed by comedians and depicted as snobs in popular culture. Shows like SpongeBob SquarePants and The Simpsons present affluent characters in an unflattering light. Such characters are seldom portrayed as virtuous entrepreneurs who are rewarded for delivering value. Usually, viewers are led to think that the rich are the source of all social ills.
Typically, negative depictions of working class or poor people would evoke controversy, but upward classism is tolerated. Sociologist Rainer Zitelmann has written extensively on upward classism and the rich in public opinion. Zitelmann’s research covers how rich people are viewed in Western countries, and his findings are unsurprising.
According to the results of Zitelmann’s study, rich people, like other minority groups, are often scapegoats who are blamed for social malaise. However, he observes that the perception of the wealthy is determined by education. In Germany, England, and America, better-educated people have a more favorable view of the rich. A possible explanation is that educated people have higher incomes and are connected to the rich, so their views are more realistic and less tainted by stereotypes.
Their education also makes it easier for them to appreciate the significance of the rich in creating value for society. Social enviers, by contrast, have warped perceptions of the rich. Zitelmann documents that such people assign negative traits to the wealthy. Because their views are shaped by a zero-sum mentality, envious people think that when some gain others must lose.
Ordinary people benefit tremendously from the inventions of the ambitious and intellectually gifted. The ingenuity of oilman John Davis Rockefeller made the American economy more productive in the nineteenth century, and today our lives are made more convenient by the efficiencies of tech companies like Amazon and Google. Without the traits of the rich, we would lack modern innovations.
But unfortunately, most people don’t differentiate the progressive rich who accumulate wealth by delivering value for society from those who increase their wealth by relying on government subsidies or political connections. Hence, we are primarily concerned with the value creators and their attributes that culminate in the formation of dynamic businesses.
In undertaking his study, Zitelmann found that the rich are high in conscientiousness and openness to experiences. Other studies assert that rich people have a great propensity for risk. Most rich people are entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs suffer from high failure rates, so this indicates that people who excel in business are not just competent but also perseverant.
The average person is not as tenacious as entrepreneurs who establish dynamic businesses that positively transform living standards. Essentially, wealth is the reward for providing value to society. Instead of demonizing the rich, people ought to be thanking them for enriching society with useful skills.
However, when envy is pervasive in society, rich people downplay their success to thwart backlash. The downside of doing so is that success is vilified rather than embraced. Societal progress is driven by the passion of ambitious people, and it will come to a halt when the most competent people are demotivated to succeed.
Zitelmann noticed in his study that countries like America and England with a lower share of envious people have a relatively higher proportion of millionaires. This is expected because in less envious countries, the success of the rich motivates others to achieve. Economic studies corroborate Zitelmann’s conclusion that the zero-sum mentality of envious people saps industrial progress.
One study notes that economic equality fails to mitigate the effects of zero-sum thinking because the possibility of some people becoming more successful can reinforce zero-sum thinking. Redistributing wealth won’t prevent the value-destroying consequences of envious behavior.
The zero-sum mindset that fuels envy will only be diminished when societies promote economic freedom to afford more opportunities to generate wealth. When people are free to prosper, they become less likely to engender a zero-sum approach to development and more appreciative of success because it’s now a greater possibility. Rather than wealth redistribution, the solution to envy is progress powered by economic freedom.