Society and Culture

Book review: “The Rich in Public Opinion” by Rainer Zitelmann

A common misunderstanding about “wokeness” is that it is not about censorship, or silencing unfashionable opinions, but merely about good manners. The “woke”, in this naïve interpretation, are not trying force a particular ideology on anyone; they are not trying to “cancel” people they disagree with. They just want to stop us from making disparaging, generalising statements about whole groups of people. Being “woke” just means being opposed to negative stereotyping.

This idea is wrong on many levels. For starters, there are, of course, groups in society that you can very easily disparage without losing any “woke points”. This is shown in the book The Rich in Public Opinion by Dr Rainer Zitelmann, a Berlin-based historian and sociologist. Zitelmann demonstrates that “upward classism” is widespread in the media, in popular culture and entertainment, and in public discourse more broadly.

Zitelmann is not trying to play an “identity politics” game of his own; his argument is not that the rich are an oppressed minority, which should be given “victimhood status”. No, he simply analyses the existing research on prejudices and stereotypes (in disciplines such as sociology and psychology) and identifies a gap in that literature. Classism, he notes, is an under-researched area, and to the extent that it has been researched at all, the focus is almost exclusively on downward classism. He then fills that gap with empirical research of his own, comparing four major Western countries: the UK, US, Germany and France.

In all four countries, the rich are widely regarded with a mix of admiration and suspicion. In the popular imagination, the “typical” millionaire is a bit like a Bond villain: intelligent and competent, but also cold-hearted and ruthless.

Should free-market liberals care? We defend the market process, including the right to get rich through market exchange – but we do not defend “the rich” per se. So why does it matter if the rich are widely disliked and caricatured?

The answer is that anti-rich bias is very closely linked to bad economics. The clearest example is zero-sum thinking. The empirical part of the book is based on an extensive survey, in which one question stands out as a litmus test: the question whether someone agrees with the statement “The more the rich have, the less there is for the poor”. The way you answer that one simple question is an amazingly good proxy for how you will answer most of the others. It is one of those questions that encapsulate a whole worldview.

To readers of this blog, it will be perfectly obvious that the statement is not true, even in a static perspective. If J. K. Rowling had never written Harry Potter, she would probably not be rich today. And yet, it would be absurd to claim that she has somehow gained her wealth at the expense of poor people. It is even more obvious in a dynamic perspective. A generation ago, there was virtually no such thing as a “Chinese millionaire”. Today, there are lots of them – and meanwhile, almost the entire Chinese population has been lifted out of extreme poverty.

Still, the zero-sum mentality remains widespread. Zitelmann shows that “zero-summers” are much more likely to harbour anti-rich sentiments. They are more likely to ascribe negative personality traits to rich people, and more reluctant to link wealth to individual effort or achievement. They are also less likely to accept that the activities which make some people rich can be beneficial to other people.

The zero-sum mentality is also the best predictor of envy, a concept which Zitelmann tries to measure empirically. He asks respondents for their assessment of three hypothetical scenarios, in which wealthy people lose money, without there being an obvious beneficiary from this. He then converts the responses into an “envy score”. As you would expect, people who score highly on this envy index are much more likely to be anti-rich. In a regression analysis which looks for the determinants of envy, zero-sum belief comes out is the most important explanatory variable in all four countries – well ahead of, for example, the respondents’ own income.

Another example of bad economics and anti-rich sentiment is a survey question on whether it is “inappropriate” for top managers to earn 100 times more than their employees, given that they do not work 100 times as much or as hard. A third of UK respondents, and as many as two thirds of German respondents, agree with that statement. Readers of this blog will, of course, be aware that this is not how salaries are determined. It is a folk version of the Marxist labour theory of value. Robbie Williams does not put a hundred times more effort into singing than any other professional singer – but the point is that a lot of people are prepared to pay good money to hear him sing.

There are a lot of similarities between the four countries, but some cross-country differences stand out. France has by far the highest proportion of people with high envy scores, while Britons and Americans are, on this measure, the least envious people. Peter Mandelson attracted a lot of opprobrium when he said that he was “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich”. But Zitelmann’s findings suggest that he was not completely out of tune with the public mood.

In France and Germany, young people are less prone to envy than older people; in the US, it is the other way around: young Americans are quite “French” in their attitudes. This may go some way towards explaining the stark generational divide in political attitudes: more than one in three US Millennials have favourable opinions of the terms “communism” and “Marxism”, compared to just one in thirteen among Baby Boomers. (It remains an open question why most British Millennials are “Mandelsonian” in their attitudes, but “Corbynite” in their politics).

This book contains a wealth of original research on a hitherto under-studied topic, embedded in a solid theoretical framework. Given the backlash against “Mandelsonian” attitudes across the political spectrum, and the rise of “Guillotine Chic” on the Left – this book has come out at exactly the right time.


Suggestions for further reading/watching/listening:

Head of Political Economy

Dr Kristian Niemietz is the IEA's Head of Political Economy. Kristian studied Economics at the Humboldt Universität zu Berlin and the Universidad de Salamanca, graduating in 2007 as Diplom-Volkswirt (≈MSc in Economics). During his studies, he interned at the Central Bank of Bolivia (2004), the National Statistics Office of Paraguay (2005), and at the IEA (2006). He also studied Political Economy at King's College London, graduating in 2013 with a PhD. Kristian previously worked as a Research Fellow at the Berlin-based Institute for Free Enterprise (IUF), and taught Economics at King's College London. He is the author of the books "Socialism: The Failed Idea That Never Dies" (2019), "Universal Healthcare Without The NHS" (2016), "Redefining The Poverty Debate" (2012) and "A New Understanding of Poverty" (2011).

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