What problems do the rich share

Who is the mob here - the capitalists or the capitalist critics?

Rich people are immoral, because otherwise they would not have made it rich: This is a cliché that philosophers like to cultivate when they ponder over wealth and poverty. This has to do with the fact that they do not occupy the position in the market economy to which they believe they are actually entitled.

The attack on the rich has begun - also in the social sciences and humanities. The French economist Thomas Piketty started with his work «Capital in the 21st Century». His focus is on the complaint about increasing economic inequality. Psychologists, in turn, discuss whether the rich are more prone to anti-social behavior than other social groups, whether they are more selfish, stingy or ruthless.

Recently, philosophers have also spoken out. Christian Neuhäuser, philosopher at the University of Dortmund, tries to explain when and why wealth is a “moral problem”. And the philosopher Björn Vedder ponders the “monsters of capitalism” in a book entitled “Rich Mob”.

Desert insinuation

Philosophers neither want to go into the depths of economic debates, nor do they have much left for psychologizing speculations about the reprehensible character of rich individuals. In this respect they are closer to Marx than the psychologists who ponder alleged character deformations of rich people: For the philosophers, rich people are character masks that are not criticized as individuals, but as protagonists of the capitalist system.

In other respects, however, philosophers like Neuhäuser fall behind Marx's critique of capitalism because they argue morally - and not economically - against wealth. According to Neuhäuser, wealth is morally problematic because it potentially gives the rich man power over other people: “If I have hurt a very rich actor, perhaps Bill Gates, in his pride, he can torture me with his money in the most cruel way, without that I could do something about it. " It is true that the philosopher Mr. Gates - God forbid - does not want to imply that he does all that. But he wants to show that rich people pose a threat to other people through their wealth alone, because they could theoretically use it to do such nasty things.

Björn Vedder focuses on the concept of the rich mob, a term that the philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel uses rather incidentally in his "Basics of Philosophy". Hegel justifies the fact that the rich are “rabble” with the fact that - in contrast to other members of society - they enjoy financial freedom, that is, they are not forced to do wage labor. It is worth quoting the passage in extenso: “The rich man harbors the fact that he has broken the chains of cooperation and made himself the absolute master of his desires. In doing so he achieves a freedom that others do not have, and this freedom corrupts him. His vulgarity is a moral deficiency resulting from an excess of freedom. "

We learn: Financial freedom, a highly desirable goal for many entrepreneurs, becomes proof of vulgarity thanks to a dialectical volte.

Bad system

Vedder is just as skeptical of proposals from moral and social philosophy that seek to improve behavior in the capitalist system morally, as was Marx at the time. The moral devaluation of the rich, he criticizes, conjures up an "economic social contract against the wolves of capitalism, but not against capitalism itself." Because, as Vedder remarks critically: Fundamental principles such as the market and economic self-interest will continue to be adhered to. Ergo, nothing will change - the bad system ultimately corrupts the person with the best soul.

What philosophers write about rich people is usually nothing more than a series of stereotypes and clichés, as presented in Hollywood films or novels.

When philosophers and other intellectuals critical of capitalism speak about rich people and capitalism, they always notice some fundamental weaknesses: They neither know anything about how economic systems work, nor do they know anything about rich people. What they write about rich people is usually nothing more than a string of stereotypes and clichés, as presented in Hollywood films or novels. You can feel that the authors obviously neither know of the super-rich themselves, about whom they fantasize, nor have empirically researched about empires.

The complaint about horrific capitalism also ignores the most important facts that can be read, for example, from Steven Pinker: In the past three decades alone, more than a billion people worldwide have escaped bitter poverty as a result of capitalist globalization. While these successes of capitalism are being trivialized, at the same time there is no critical reflection on whether the - mostly only hinted - utopian counter-drafts are really suitable for improving the lot of the people.

Noble ignorance

The experiences of the past hundred years, in which without exception all anti-capitalist alternatives failed grandly, are ignored. The anti-capitalist intellectuals content themselves with the mere assertion that a new edition of socialist experiments is by no means intended. Skepticism is appropriate because they obviously don't understand Why these anti-capitalist counter-drafts have always failed economically. With them the principle of hope reigns - which is not justified by anything. The next attempt to overcome capitalism will result in a different result than in all previous attempts. Somehow. Somewhere. Sometime.

The philosopher Neuhäuser formulated a “realistic utopia” for a completely different economic system in which there is no longer any wealth. Free labor markets should be abolished because they obviously fail to organize work in such a way that almost everyone can find a job. Economic systems could allegedly function very well without any wealth or the pursuit of profit. It is this constructivist approach that Friedrich August von Hayek criticized among intellectuals: They think of a better world on the drawing board, but do not understand how their own works.

But what is the root of the resentment against capitalism and its protagonists, the rich? The philosophers unmistakably share the sadness that their own profession - and more generally: the educated middle class - no longer plays the role it did in earlier times. Neuhäuser observes a “change from the dominance of the educated middle class to the dominance of the business middle class”. The manager is currently replacing the university professor as the social ideal of the upper middle class or has already done so. Neuhäuser admits that this also has an equalizing side. Money is becoming more and more important for communicating status and respectability.

Vedder also states that “the educated bourgeoisie lost the cultural war against the economic bourgeoisie” and therefore “the rich mob stripped off the guardianship of the circles that were once formed”. The critics of the rich had "long since registered the loss of importance of a higher cultural capital".

The anti-capitalism of the elite

So is the resentment of the philosophers against the wealthy and the meritocratic principles of the market economy perhaps also fed by a desperation about a social system in which they do not play the role that they should play according to their own self-image? To understand why intellectuals are often anti-capitalists, one has to take into account that they are or see themselves as an elite and that their anti-capitalism is fed by opposition to the business elite. In this respect, it is a question of competition between different elites in modern society.

If more and higher education do not lead naturally to more income and higher positions, then the markets in which such a thing can happen are unjust for intellectuals who are critical of capitalism. A competitive system from which others regularly emerge as winners and in which even the medium-sized entrepreneur not only has a higher income and assets than the ingenious philosopher, but also supposedly enjoys even more recognition, leads to a general skepticism against an economic order based on competition.

What follows from this is obvious: If this system cannot be eliminated so easily, at least there is an intellectual satisfaction in establishing philosophically why the rich are, if not economically, at least morally inferior. And in this way the fact that one is not rich becomes an affirmation of one's moral superiority.

Rainer Zitelmann is a historian and sociologist. His book «Society and its rich people. Prejudices against an envied minority »(Finanzbuch-Verlag 2019).