Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared at Forbes.com.
Two news items about “the rich” recently popped up online within a couple of hours of each other.
Story No. 1: Pew Research Center found that non-rich Americans have ambivalent feelings toward the rich: On the positive side, there was admiration for those “who get rich by working hard” and a sense that rich Americans tend to be smarter; on the negative, “the rich” were viewed as “greedier and less honest.”
Story No. 2: CNBC published some blunt statements made by Gina Rinehart, an Australian who is worth about $19 billion. Clearly tired of being dissed, vilified, and attacked for her wealth, the outspoken Ms. Rinehart wrote an article full of unapologetic statements of economic truth. A choice sample: “There is no monopoly on becoming a millionaire. If you’re jealous of those with more money, don’t just sit there and complain. Do something to make more money yourself.”
Predictably, a member of the political class was one of the first to scold Ms. Rinehart for her politically incorrect candor. Deputy Prime Minister Wayne Swan characterized her remarks as “an insult to the millions of Australian workers who go to work and slog it out to feed the kids and pay the bills.”
What cheap grandstanding.
Ms. Rinehart wasn’t putting down people who work hard and haven’t struck it rich. What she protests is people resenting honestly gained wealth as if some sort of crime against one’s fellow man had been committed. The lady knows where prosperity comes from and isn’t afraid to say so, even though demagogic politicians denounce her for her honesty.
Indeed, politicians are a principal cause of the widespread negative animus towards rich people. They, along with armchair, Monday-morning quarterbacking “intellectuals” and scribblers, love to tell people that they aren’t responsible for their own condition, and that their problems could be alleviated if only more were taken from those greedy rich people.
There is, however, a class of people who have done more to sully the reputation of “the rich” and poison people’s view of them than the politicians. The number one culprit to blame for anti-rich sentiment is rich people themselves—not the majority of rich people who are honorable, but the minority of rich people who got rich by cheating. Those cheaters fall into two categories: those who broke laws (frauds, thefts, etc.) and those who grabbed unearned, undeserved gains under the cover of the law (government privileges, such as subsidies, grants, special protections from competition, etc.).
There is no debate about the first kind. Crooks are crooks, and any businessperson who has gotten rich dishonestly deserves to be denounced.
Yet, it is the second kind of cheater we need to focus on. In a free market characterized by voluntary transactions, nobody can compel anyone to give them money or force customers to buy the products of rich people. Consumers voluntarily purchase things offered to them because they are worth more to the purchaser than the money surrendered in exchange for them. In other words, the provider of the good or service has enriched the life of the buyer. Why should such helpful behavior in the service of one’s fellow beings expose one to punitive (i.e., a special higher rate) of taxation? It is the forcible transfer of wealth by government from taxpayers to special interests and political cronies—the unfree, not the free market—that is the unfair way of getting rich.
Politicians, who are up to their neck in redistributing the honestly earned wealth of “the rich,” want to divert attention from (in some cases) their own morally bankrupt behavior. Thus, they demonize “the rich” and strive to convince voters that government redistribution of wealth and the bestowing of lucrative privileges on politically connected businesspersons may be justifiable because “the rich” “didn’t get there on their own” and therefore don’t deserve to keep their wealth. “‘The rich’ have more than you, and that’s unfair,” is the standard leftist refrain; “vote for us and we’ll rectify the situation.”
People who attain wealth through dishonesty or political shortcuts are the ones who deserve our opprobrium and disapprobation. People who earn wealth legitimately (like Gina Rinehart), or by serving others, merit our respect, if not our gratitude.