The economic crash of 2008 and all that followed has had the salutary effect of making inequality a public issue again. Widespread economic loss caused by systemic financial irresponsibility, followed by public bailouts rather than penalties for the those who ruined the economy have a way of bringing people to their senses about the negative effects that wealth can have on a society. In classical republican theory high concentrations of wealth were seen as cancerous sores on the body politic, and equality, or how to deal with a lack of it, has always been a concern in modern democratic philosophies. Recent self-centered whining by certain members of our financial class demonstrate just how out-of-touch the wealthy can be. But America has always been a place that is too subservient to the rich, and if we are not careful we will fail to take advantage of the opportunity to become more persistently critical of the prerogatives and privileges of the upper class.
Matt Taibbi and Josh Brown both recently wrote excellent critiques the entitlement attitude of wealth wealthy whiners upset that the rest of us are angry with them. They both have pointed out that most Americans aren't mad at them for being rich, but for being massively irresponsible and unaccountable. As Brown says, "[I]t is not that Americans hate successful people or the wealthy. In fact, it is just the opposite. We love the success stories in our midst and it is a distinctly American trait to believe that we can all follow in the footsteps of the elite, even though so few of us ever actually do. So, no, we don’t hate the rich. What we hate are the predators." And Taibbi: "Nobody hates them for being successful. And not that this needs repeating, but nobody even minds that they are rich. What makes people furious is that they have stopped being citizens... Most of us wouldn’t take a million dollars to swindle the local school system, or put our next door neighbors out on the street with a robosigned foreclosure, or steal the life’s savings of some old pensioner down the block by selling him a bunch of worthless securities."
But it is almost a certainty that we should mind that they are rich, or at least so filthy rich that they forget they are members of the human species. We Americans ought to be much less trusting and deferential towards the wealthy. While I'm sure that there are many fine wealthy individuals and that most of them are personally very decent and polite, they live in a highly competitive system that rewards the worst people and brings out the worst in the rest. We need to make the connection that it is precisely because they are so rich that they are so irresponsible. There has been more than one study showing that economists and stockbrokers are more selfish, narcissistic, and even sociopathic than everyone else.
Self selection plays a role as self-centered people go into professions that lead to greater wealth and power - which is all the more reason to put greater limits on the accumulations of wealth and power we permit. But the self-justifying dogmas of neoliberal economics, libertarian narcissism, and conservative aristocratic superiority also make people's habits of thought more selfish and self-promoting. The daily experience of the rich of being waited on hand and foot, having all their needs and whims met without effort, and, for those in positions of authority, of regularly wielding power over millions of people and dollars, also determines their outlook. They learn to think they are better than the rest of us, that they can do things regular people can't or wouldn't, and that the world revolves around them. They think this way because they are rich, because they have the experiences particular to a certain social position - as the rich have always thought of themselves. And our American ruling class has gotten very good at rationalizing this and convincing themselves that they really are smarter, braver, and better than the rest of us, and that it's all for the greater good anyway. Meanwhile quality of life for the 99% has stagnated since the 1970s while the rich have gotten richer, a sure sign that none of this actually is for the benefit of all.
Conclusion: the rich become irresponsible by virtue of being rich, or are made worse by it, and it is therefore quite rational for the rest of us to distrust them by default, because of their social position. They control vast resources and the courses of our lives, yet as a group they demonstrate below-average levels of responsibility. Maybe we should despise them just because they are rich.