The rich or the wise?

One thing I’ve noticed in connection with climate debates is that in any dispute between the rich and the intelligent, most people tend to side with the rich. And now that I think about it, that seems to be true in general. It doesn’t matter if you’re a greedy, dishonest bastard, or if you hurt people below you on your mad rush to the top. If you’re rich, people not only like you better, they’re also more likely to assume that what you say is true—even when you’re promoting an agenda that’s going to hurt a lot of the people who believe you.

Health care reform is another example. You can be smart, you can be well educated, you can sit down and actually read the text of the Affordable Care Act and see that nowhere does it make any provision for setting up a “death panel” to deny Grandma her badly-needed medical care. But if you’re rich, and conservative, that doesn’t matter. You can tell people they’re going to have death panels, and people will believe you even when they can read the law for themselves and see that you are lying. You’ve got a ton of money, so obviously you must know what you’re talking about.

In a way, I can see how this would be the natural order of things. People like rich people better than they like poor people. You hang around people who are too needy, it can get annoying, right? But rich people create an atmosphere of privilege and entitlement, and that’s extremely attractive (especially if you’re one of the needy people that you yourself would not want to hang around with). People support and defend the rich because they want to identify with the rich, in case Fortune should somehow carelessly let a little of that excess wealth slosh over onto them.

Meanwhile, smart doesn’t rub off on people as easily as cash does. If someone is smarter than you, more than likely that means they’re going to be competition. They’re going to make you look stupid in front of your friends. They’re going to contradict you and make you feel stupid yourself. They’re going to try and tell you what to do, because they know better than you do. There’s just lots of opportunities for their intelligence to be a liability to you, and your best defense is to hang out with a bunch of other people and basically exclude the smart-asses from having a say in anything you all agree to do.

Obviously these are very broad generalizations with a lot of wiggle-room and outright exceptions. But the overall trend, the net effect, is that people are more likely to believe the rich than the wise, and that’s the road back to feudalism. Somehow we need to get people to wake up and remember that wisdom is for everyone, and that smart people are even readier to share their wisdom than rich people are to share their money. The Internet can help, but it seems to me that we need more than that. Any ideas?


  1. says

    I don’t have any ideas, except to keep saying what you’re saying and hope it gets through to people in the end. I ask people how they can vote conservative when they are working class and the conservatives have never been about the working class, and they just shrug and say it’s better than all the taxes the liberals want to take out of their wages.

    • plutosdad says

      I have been reading The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander and it’s fascinating as well as horrifying. It goes all the way back to before the US, back to Bacon’s Rebellion, when the rich realized they needed to drive a wedge between poor whites and poor blacks (this was when both were indentured servants, rather than blacks being slaves).

      Heck you can go back to Pericles, and the reason Plato and Aristotle were down on democracy: it was about playing to the base instincts of people and manipulating the mob. People vote for what they think is best for them, not for what is actually best, no matter left or right, people are not incredibly informed or able to see other sides. (After all, the Left’s leaders are also all rich telling people what’s best for them).

  2. olibird says

    I think this is at least partly a cultural thing. Certainly, over on this side of the water, it feels like there’s less distrust of the intelligent, and more distrust of the wealthy.

  3. machintelligence says

    If you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich? */snark*
    Poor but honest? I’m poor because I’m honest!
    Just look at all of the wealthy crooks running Ponzi schemes, and how willingly people believed them. I think we are up against a basic flaw in human nature, much like authoritarian personalities.

  4. says

    I think the tendency to side with the powerful is a manifestation of an instinct that is found in all gregarious animals.

    Any challenge to an established power structure is expensive; so unless the situation is generally intolerable, the majority will tend to side with the existing alpha rather than expend considerable effort attempting to overturn it (with a strong probability of loss of life if unsuccessful): the viability of the pack is more important than the comfort of any of its individual members.

    One of the ways this instinct manifests in humans, is by siding with the obviously rich and powerful. I’m not by any means trying to excuse it; rather, it’s important to know why it happens so we can do something about it.

    • Tige Gibson says

      They also perceive God to be powerful. The thing about being loyal to the powerful is that it seems safe and easy (especially in terms of mental effort). They believe that the side they have chosen will ultimately triumph, so they don’t feel any compulsion to think through the details, and they can walk away from controversy because eventually it will be sorted out in their favor. It’s just a matter of time.

  5. johnfarnham says

    “in connection with climate debates is that in any dispute between the rich and the intelligent, most people tend to side with the rich”
    Actually, what I had noticed was the constant misrepresentation of ‘debate’ by framing the possibilities of change into a bipolar function which was then represented as the only realistic view. Have you ever looked at one of those temperature graphs ? They are all over the ballpark.

  6. davidjanes says

    Could it possibly be that everyone thinks it is possible to become rich, but thinks that their intelligence is fixed and therefore resents anyone who comes off as “smarter”?

  7. smrnda says

    I think part of it might just be that rich people, by having lots of money, have a greater level of control over the media, which gives them a greater control over our culture. People have a tendency to believe things that they hear often enough, so if you have the funds you can pump out deceptive propaganda and get people to believe it without really thinking. People will believe something that they hear or see often enough which is packaged attractively more than they’ll believe something they stumble across that’s true.

    It’s kind of a basic principle of advertising at work – if you find a way to brand something, whether a product or an idea, it will become popular regardless of lack of quality. Rich people don’t necessarily get rich by doing something better than their competitors but by finding the right way to promote and brand what they are selling.

    There’s also something where rich people tend to portray ‘intelligent’ people as somehow different than ‘real Americans’ and show that the rich are more like ‘real Americans’ in being obsessed with virtues of power, domination, aggression and all the rest. I don’t think ordinary working class people necessarily have to like or admire those virtues, but they live in a culture that’s created for them. When people are more intelligent they more create their own culture.

    The whole division in culture between say, working class and college educated people is artificial, and it serves to make working class people skeptical of educated people because they are taught to value conformity and taught to be suspicious of people who are different or seem to clever. In nations with better educational systems I don’t think this exists to the same degree.

  8. StevoR says

    Of course, it is possible to be both rich and wise – Bill Gates, Al Gore and Elon Musk to name three examples.

    But generally, yeah, agreed.

    I think US culture tends to have a very anti-intellectual streak in it which is pretty bad and worrying often seems to have an excessive influence over its politics and people’s views.

    Ideas to tackle it?

    More and better education?

    Hollywood, TV shows and the culture generally promoting intelligent people and scientists as heroes more often?

    Less viewing of Fox news and suchlike which reinforce misinformation and biases such as this?

  9. jesse says

    I will posit that it is a combination of what BecomingJulie, davidjanes and the OP speak of.

    That is, while it’s possible for dumb people to become rich, generally you can’t be a complete dullard. Businesspeople, especially the self-made ones that so much American self-identity is centered on, usually were smart enough to see opportunities and take them. Or they saw the potential in a new product, or knew how to do a good risk/reward calculation. THey know how to “read” a situation to make a good bet that is more often right than wrong, or spectacularly right in one instance. The guys who are traders, and do well, for instance, aren’t stupid. Yes, this ignores inherited wealth, but that is sort of the point, as in the US in particular we tend to brush inheritance under the rug.

    That said, the issue of power structure is relevant. Absent a really, really compelling reason people won’t upset those things. While we love to say how awful feudal societies were, for instance, we forget that on a day-to-day basis things were often okay. That is, you went to work in the fields, and as long as there wasn’t a war or something life was hard, but you survived. (Even for nobles life was pretty tough by modern standards). It wasn’t until the system started to become untenable for a lot of people that it was abandoned.

    A worthy example is Spain relative to other nations. In 1491 the Spanish were thinking seriously about how to alter the system they had; feudal conquest was no longer an option and other countries were experimenting with forms of capitalism. The Spanish were too, through their trade network. But then they discovered the Americas, and suddenly a feudal system was still workable because you could go conquer in South America. But by 1700 or so that’s no longer an option. Meanwhile, the British, Dutch and French had all figured out a different system, and the tables were turned. Spanish society went through a long slow collapse that wasn’t really reversed until the 20th century. It took massive upheavals to get rid of feudalism, which arguably didn’t happen until the 19th century in Spain. And it took a major, major economic and military crisis to precipitate the French and Russian Revolutions.

    Then there’s the idea of being able to become rich if you want, and not become smart. Social mobility is important to our self-definition in the US. And that makes us all want to believe in the one who did it.

  10. left0ver1under says

    Somehow we need to get people to wake up and remember that wisdom is for everyone, and that smart people are even readier to share their wisdom than rich people are to share their money.

    Unfortunately, it’s not just about rich versus smart, it’s about laziness versus work. Ignorance is easy. Education takes time and effort, and most people aren’t willing to put in either.

    Most people don’t want to be informed or educated about things outside their own area of expertise, they want easy answers to take for granted. It’s why the rich are so willing to believe in religion, because they can rationalize their wealth. It’s why they deny climate change, so they can continue unsustainable business practices.

    And it’s why they deny that the ACA does not have “death panels”, because the rich don’t want to pay their fair share of taxes. One thing not mentioned above is that there already are death panels, but they are run by HMOs. Nataline Sarkisyan was a 17 year old girl who needed transplant surgery, but Cigna killed time until they killed her.

    If Cigna had approved the surgery, Sarkisyan might have survived. If Cigna had declined the surgery, her family could have appealed the decision. But Cigna chose to make no decision, leaving the family in legal limbo and unable to sue, and Cigna leaving Sarkisyan’s condition to worsen until it was untreatable, killing her.

    That is a death panel, the committee that deliberately made no decision until she died. That is what the rich are supporting, affordable care for only those who can afford expensive care. The poor are left to die.

    Nataline Sarkisyan is not the only case of this (e.g. Sun Hudson, among others).

  11. A Hermit says

    People want to identify with winners, and the rich are seen as winners. So many people will jump on the wealthy side’s bandwagon in much the same way they’ll jump on the side of a wining sports team.

  12. says

    In a world where most people want to be well-off, it’s reasonable to judge someone’s grasp of reality by how successfully they have managed to make money out of it. It’s possible to be a wealthy whackjob, but it’s not common, since whackjobs have a proverbially hard time holding on to their money.

    Of course, a lot of scientists have made a great deal of money out of the climate debate, but most of that money has been in the form of free travel, all-expenses paid accommodation at conferences, grants for lab equipment and staff, promotions and pay rises, and the various perks and kickbacks relating to having a high profile in the climate science community, so it tends not to show up as ‘income’ or ‘wealth’, though it certainly makes their lives a good deal more comfortable. The really remarkable thing is that despite all these rewards for promoting AGW, some brave people have chosen to take the opposite side and demonstrate that ‘global warming’ is complete nonsense. Most of them get no funding from anywhere: those who are funded typically receive less than a hundredth of the amounts going to prominent ‘climate scientists’ on ‘the team’.

    How astonishing it is, then, that without funds and with limited access to channels of communication, these people have been able to successfully oppose and roll back the claims of AGW alarmists around the world, to hamstring power-grabbing conferences from Copenhagen onward and to discredit the mishmash of grey literature and wishful thinking put forward by the increasingly isolated IPCC.

    • Deacon Duncan says

      I can’t tell from your tone whether you’re just being sarcastic, so I have to ask you: are you serious? The Koch brothers have limited funds? The Fox News Network has limited access to channels of communication? Scientists who depend on grants from others are getting more wealth than denialist millionaires like Rush Limbaugh? And AGW warnings are “alarmist” when even Koch-funded, denialist research confirms that the science behind the warnings is accurate?

      The problem with global warming is that it affects this planet, not whatever world all those things are true on.

    • trazan says

      Think about all the interests that gain from denialism. Some obvious examples are the oil industry and the industry that makes vehicles. How much more resources do they have, compared to those that want to stop the global temperature from rising? How many orders of magnitude? More than five? More than six?

  13. thisisaturingtest says


    If you’re rich, people not only like you better, they’re also more likely to assume that what you say is true…

    I think, in a lot of cases, folks assume that if you’re rich, you must also be smart (and thus that what you say must be true). This reminds me of something Edith Kermit Roosevelt (Theodore’s wife) said. She was famously something of a snob, and her idea of the proper social distinctions between her and, say, her servants, was based on this:

    If they had our brains, they’d have our places.

    This, of course, presupposes the brains, and that they were the reason for the places, of her and her kind. It also presupposes that there could be no other reason for not having those places. No acknowledgement that rich folks can owe their places to something other than their brains (inheritance, for the obvious example- which, in fact, is where her “place” came from); no acknowledgement that there might be other barriers keeping smart people from being rich (lack of equal opportunities for education to develop their brains to ends more useful than simple survival); no gray areas, no in-betweens- not, as in Deacon’s formulation, a lot of wiggle-room- just plain old binary-thinking to justify snobbery, breathing the self-satisfied air of entitlement. Not very smart, to me.

  14. believeinme2 says

    This may be hard for some to believe but there are some “Smart” people out there who choose NOT to chase the all mighty dollar. I would say that most of america is driven by the ol’ “Golden Rule” idea. He who has the gold makes the rules! As long as there are people on this planet, there will always be the smart ones and the not so smart. The rich and the poor. Always has been and always will be. The answer to all of our problems is really very simple. Just ask yourself… do I want it done to me? If yes, then do it to others and for others. If not… then don’t!…and of course…leave god out of it!

    There’s the “Smart” oil exec who knows what he’s doing is hurting the planet but man he sure loves those profits. What’s “dumb” is that his kids and grandkids also live on this planet…lol. Oh well.

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