Are you rich? Get it out of your head that it’s because you’re better than the rest of us

I’ve run into this circular argument often; it’s painfully in common in Libertarian circles. It’s the idea that being rich is proof of one’s superiority.

The image of the world as an arena of cut-throat competition is seductive. Any trust-fund aristocrat can chuckle about the unpitying law of the jungle and feel like a raw, scrappy survivor. At this point, the richest 1 percent of the American population controls roughly double the wealth in this country that the bottom 90 percent of the population does. If this nation’s staggering economic inequality is just an example of natural selection, then our dysfunctional distribution of wealth is simply proof that all is right with the world. The myth of economic Darwinism justifies the gutting of the American middle class – even as it’s espoused by a GOP that claims not to believe in Darwinism itself.

The article mainly talks about the many alternatives to natural selection, and about how selection can be destructive, not always a benefit. It doesn’t follow up on the most obvious counter to the trust-fund aristocrat’s argument. Does anyone really believe the extremely rich earned their wealth? Is Jeff Bezos actually superior, with greater intelligence and cunning and discipline, than everyone else in the country? It should be clear that while yes, it does require ability to follow through and become a billionaire, these people are beneficiaries of luck, as well, and that they’ve followed a path that gives them rewards grossly disproportionate to their actual talents.

It’s also the case that if you look into the history of social darwinists, the people who most strongly promoted this idea, they tend to be terrible, awful, bigoted people. Social darwinism also predated the actual development of evolutionary theory, and was in many ways contradicted by observation, so as the article explains, too often we see pseudoscience presented as factual science simply by sticking the words “evolution” or “Darwin” on it.


  1. davidc1 says

    These stinking rich types ,drop them in the middle of a desert or a rain forest ,they would trade all their wealth for a drink of water from a native .

  2. Chris J says

    I can nail down where my personal wealth has come from. My parents could afford to put me through excellent schools, and I happened to personally enjoy academics and the things needed for a high-paying profession. I know for certain that, compared to some of my less wealthy friends, I don’t work longer or harder hours and I don’t provide more society-critical services.

    Honestly it’s sometimes a bit baffling how much of a difference in income there is between someone like me who works in the corporate tech industry and someone who works with troubled kids as a social worker. I can’t say I’d want to give up my salary in all honesty, but surely social work deserves better pay for all the psychological stress and public good it does.

  3. rpjohnston says

    It’s the Just World fallacy. Many people believe that the Universe – or, much more commonly, God – rewards those who are moral and punishes those who are immoral. Thus a middle-class believe walking by a homeless man believes that he is homeless because of his lack of sound morals, while his own prosperity reflects his moral uprightness.

    To you and me, “moral good” means increasing the condition of other people – both collectively and personally. It’s not zero-sum. But to a Just World believer, “Moral good” is to be at the top of a hierarchy. The further above you are, and the more people below you, the more moral you must be. I’m sure you see the logical conclusion: You can increase your morality by destroying other people just as well as by increasing yourself.

    Better to reign in a sewer than live as an equal in a society. These are people who will forego a livable wage for themselves in order to tear screaming infants from their mothers. Again: You and I see that as ghastly and inhuman, but these people see that pain as proof that they deserve pain – if only they’d come here “legally”, instead of immorally, they wouldn’t be punished.

    It doesn’t work if they personally cause the pain – they can’t be moral by shooting somebody dead – but if they set up a system of arbitrary, capricious, and nigh-insurmountable “moral proofs”, then it gives them a self-righteous justification for destroying people who fail.

    Also racism: You know the quip about white people in trailer parks who see themselves as “temporarily embarrassed millionaires”? Their condition is terrible, but they don’t come to the conclusion that it’s because they’re immoral – nobody wants to believe themselves as immoral, and besides, that would mean taking Personal Responsibility for their condition. Instead they believe that the wealth that should be theirs has been stolen by an undeserving Other. If it weren’t for all those illegals teking er jerbs we’d be rich! Damn gays perverting our culture’s purity! Lazy blacks leeching off our taxes!

    And in particular, DEMOCRATS taking their money and giving it to people who don’t deserve it. I mean, if they DID deserve it, then they wouldn’t need the help in the first place, right? They’re only poor because they lack morals, and being poor is the just punishment; if they’d straighten up, then they’d be rich, no welfare needed!

    I could go on about how charity isn’t meant to actually solve a problem; it’s just an opportunity for people to put on a show of being able to give away excess morality – especially, in fact, poor people who have little but are desperate to reassure themselves that they are not so immoral that they can’t spare any to give.

    The thing is…this is a person’s base moral condition. You CAN’T argue them into an egalitarian, compassionate moral outlook. Works MIIIIIGHT turn a few of them, but not enough to be significant. The only real way to deal with them is to beat them. Their whole moral impetus is destruction, and you cannot build unless the arsons are suppressed.

  4. says

    It’s the idea that being rich is proof of one’s superiority.

    But, without that, we can’t have an aristocracy!! We’re left with a dumbluckockracy and that’s nowhere near as cool!

  5. F.O. says

    1) I can imagine that Bezos is 100 times more intelligent and cunning and disciplined (and ruthless) than most others.
    But the idea that he’s 150 000 000 times more so is laughable.

    2) As a society, what’s our advantage in allowing such obscene fortunes?
    What interest have the poor and disenfranchised in supporting such a system?

    3) A democratic society exists to limit the power that an individual can gain over the others.
    A democratic society cannot survive if it allows so much power to be concentrated in so few hands.

  6. robro says

    Thirty-five years ago the band I was in did a song called “I Put My Shoes On” about going to work with the chant “One. Million. Dollars. Gimme Gimme Want It Now.” About 10 years ago I realized to my surprise, that my partner and I had achieved that dubious goal. Now we’re reasonably safe financially, in other words, “rich” by most people’s standards, as we approach retirement and escaping urban despair.

    As Kahneman and Tversky showed, most people underestimate luck. I was lucky. Pure and simple. Thirty-Five years ago, my biggest successes had been in janitorial work, and perhaps acting and music tho there’s “no business in show business” you know. But, it’s not what I knew, but who I knew. One friend in particular gave me a chance in a new technology industry which I knew nothing about. Later, two more friends helped me get new jobs in the industry.

    Ultimately, most of the credit for intelligent decision making goes to my partner…she was right about stocks.

  7. auraboy says

    If we actually had a breakdown of the 1%ers – what is the betting that a goodly proportion inherited their wealth and never worked a day for it, anyway? The vast majority of very wealthy people I’ve encountered personally (anecdotal evidence warning) had rich parents or grandparents and have only ever had token education or employment. This doesn’t mean they’re awful people (though, coincidentally, most are) but it’s surely the tech-entrepreneurs that are the outliers (and, as others have mentioned, even they aren’t worth the insane factors of income above the median).

  8. says

    Among the “C words” competition is way over-sold. Humans are social creatures. We don’t create successful communities through competition, we do it through cooperation, consideration and compassion.

    I say that as a former “highly competitive and successful” athlete (distance runner). I trained with many of the people I raced against. We were all friends and supported each other. Yes, I wanted to win, but that was more of battle with myself than with the people around me. And we have a better word for that anyway: striving.

  9. weylguy says

    Worse than economic Darwinism is Christian Darwinism, which posits that wealthy Christians are proof that God is blessing them and that the poor are just worthless crap in the eyes of God. At least rich secular bastards like Elon Musk and his ilk can point to something non-supernatural that led to their wealth, like intelligence, good fortune and hard work.

  10. Bruce says

    Yes. #9 Weylguy is right.
    It seems to me that modern Libertarianism owes a lot to warmed-over Calvinism from almost 500 years ago in Geneva. The line was that god chose the successful, so you knew everyone rich deserved it because obviously god caused it. Likewise, this view was/is that everyone poor deserves to be poor because obviously god made them to be moral degenerates.
    This evil philosophy is the lazy way of erasing any need for social justice efforts. They simply declare that either god or the invisible hand of libertarian economics has already imposed justice and punishment, and so all we have to do is accept god’s praise for our thefts and help god keep the poors downtrodden. As with so much of conservatism, it’s just a justification for selfishness.

  11. thirdmill301 says

    I’m actually fine with the idea that people who work hard and make smart choices are entitled to a higher standard of living than those who don’t, up to a point. But we’re way past that point. The 1%, who could not spend all that money if they tried, are practicing a type of hoarding that makes them no different from other mentally ill people who hoard newspapers, empty plastic bottles, or cats. And I think the real problem is that the 1% are admired rather than being viewed as mentally ill hoarders. Most of whom, as others have pointed out, got to be where they are more through dumb luck than by actually working hard and making smart choices.

  12. rpjohnston says

    By the way, the “like” system on these posts is borked. Trying to like something opens a popup asking me to log into WordPress (durrrrr, I’m already logged in, obv) and my password doesn’t work there.

  13. rpjohnston says

    @11 I think it’s less hoarding than high-score gaming. Rich people don’t belong to countries. They don’t live in the same society as us hoi polloi – THEIR people, their society, is a multinational cabal up in the clouds. And those are the Joneses that they compete against. Gotta get to the top of the ladder and be the envy of their peers.

  14. consciousness razor says

    At least rich secular bastards like Elon Musk and his ilk can point to something non-supernatural that led to their wealth, like intelligence, good fortune and hard work.

    If they’re supposed to be pointing at anything that’s meant to justify their status as rich bastards or the processes of rich bastardization that brought to things to the present situation, then supposedly being a natural thing isn’t an improvement, because it still doesn’t exist. And if they’re not doing it for that sort of reason (i.e., to justify this state of affairs), it shouldn’t change our conclusion that this is no good and ought to stop, meaning I don’t especially give a shit which sort of entity they believe (wrongly) they’re pointing at….

    What you’re basically saying is that, in one case, there are people who believe they’re pointing at a unicorn with magical powers. In the other, it’s supposed to be merely a fancy horse … but it’s a horse which also happens not to exist, just like the unicorn, which makes it every bit as useless for these purposes.

    You might think, “oh, but if there were a fancy horse, then it would have some potential to do this particular job.” But exactly the same could be said of the unicorn, if it were true that it was real. You just happened to already know (I assume) that there are no unicorns. Still, the issue is that in fact there simply aren’t any justifications for it at all, in any category you care to name, whether or not you already knew this somehow. Natural and supernatural exhaust the possibilities, conveniently enough; so in other words, there’s no such thing in either which does what Musk’s ilk would like it to do.

  15. says

    A lot of the rich got that way by stealing as much as they can. Apple tried to claim Xerox’s work as their own. Microsoft stole other peoples’ ideas.

  16. KG says


    Thomas Piketty’s Capital In The 21st Century has a whole chapter on “Merit and Inheritance in the Long Run”. He reckons (but the data are limited) that in 1970-80 inherited capital was around 50-60% of total private capital in the USA. This percentage will certainly have risen since then, and will be higher the further up the wealth scale you go.

  17. says

    I kind of like, though, how Social Darwinism inspired Piotr Kropotkin to write Mutual Aid, which is basically a couple of hundred pages of him asking, “have any of you assholes ever, you know, actually observed nature before invoking it to justify your scumbag ideology? Anyone? No, because I have & let me tell you, you’re full of shit, comrades!”

  18. chrislawson says


    The only thing I would say in Apple’s defence is that Xerox itself failed to develop the amazing technology from their PARC lab. Apple took the idea for a GUI and released the Macintosh computer in 1984. By then the idea was old. The Xerox Alto workstations were built way back in 1972. Xerox used them internally but they were never intended to be a commercial product and they never sold any outside the company. In 1977, Xerox decided to make a commercial GUI computer, and in 1981 released the Star…but it only functioned in a network linked to other Xerox computers and not as a standalone; also it was absurdly expensive ($16K per unit, but to get a working system required at least $50K) so they only sold 25,000 units. Xerox had one more crack at the project in 1985, the year after the Macintosh, by building the Star cheaper on much better hardware, but it was still too expensive at triple the price of a Macintosh or PC. There’s also some talk that Xerox management from the copier side of the business obstructed the upstart computing arm’s access to established sales channels — but even if this is true, the basic problems with the platform would have sunk it anyway.

    So essentially Apple took the idea of a GUI with icon navigation via mouse after Xerox had already failed with the concept. And although they took the ideas, they didn’t steal any code; they built their own computer and OS with their own work. And Apple was merely the first competitor to get a successful standalone GUI computer to market. Pretty much every major computer company leaped on the idea in the early 80s: Microsoft, Adobe, IBM, Atari, Commodore and many others. (Also worth pointing out: the Macintosh despite its place in history was not a huge commercial success at first; Apple only barely made their money back…and it was not even Apple’s first GUI computer: that honour goes to Apple’s commercial disaster from 1983, the LISA.)

    This ends my defence of Apple’s business practices….

  19. DanDare says

    Not just luck. Wealth begets wealth and raises the entry bar. Others are poor because paths to wealth are blocked. Inherited wealth is a protected enclave.

  20. ck, the Irate Lump says

    auraboy wrote:

    If we actually had a breakdown of the 1%ers – what is the betting that a goodly proportion inherited their wealth and never worked a day for it, anyway?

    None of them, of course. Each created their empire entirely from scratch other than a small loan of couple million dollars or a business contact or a dozen from their parents. Trump bragged about his humble beginnings which included a tiny $1,000,000 loan from his father. Mitt Romney bragged about his humble beginnings which involved getting an interest-free loan from his parents to buy a house, and making the tough call of cashing in some stocks provided to him by his parents while being educated. Bill Gates started out with nothing more than the business contacts (i.e. IBM) of his lawyer parents. All amazing rags-to-riches stories.

    it’s surely the tech-entrepreneurs that are the outliers (and, as others have mentioned, even they aren’t worth the insane factors of income above the median).

    I don’t think they’re outliers in either regard. Plenty of them have inherited wealth or power, and plenty of them are being completely awful (see Bezos and Amazon’s treatment of its employees, or Musk and his anti-union posturing at Tesla).

  21. Artor says

    I’m about to come into more money than I’ve ever had in my life, more than I could expect to make in 30 years of frugal living. Am I a better person suddenly because my dad died? Man, those dumb hairless apes have some weird social markers.

  22. says

    @#15, robertbaden
    @#18, chrislawson

    Apple paid Xerox $1 million in stock to see Xerox’s GUI and use any ideas they saw, so no matter what, they weren’t “stealing”. (IIRC, when Xerox sold that stock it was worth $32 million.)

    Furthermore, most of what Apple built as a result of that tour was stuff Xerox had never done at the time of the tour. Consider the following list of things Apple invented:
    – Overlapping windows (Xerox didn’t do that, the current program was given a screen region to draw in, which was not mobile)
    – The open/save dialog boxes, which all modern GUIs have copied
    – Pretty much everything to do with icon-based file management, incidentally, like using a “trash” system for deferred deletion of files, or opening new windows for directories in the hierarchy
    – A menu bar, as opposed to contextual menus (the Xerox concept machines and the original Mac OS were reversed on that — Macs had a menu bar but no contextual menus, Xerox the opposite)
    – A systemwide multi-content-type clipboard — Xerox didn’t even have a systemwide clipboard at all
    – In fact, pretty much anything which was “system-wide” — the Xerox systems of that time, like Unix systems, had features which were implemented on a program-by-program basis; the idea that the whole OS would understand fonts and sound and the mouse may have been “in the air” but Xerox didn’t do it, Apple did

    This idea that Apple stole things from Xerox and did no development of their own is something Bill Gates very carefully fostered, because he paid nobody and really didn’t do any development. (He managed to get Steve Jobs to approve a tour for Microsoft engineers to talk to the Mac engineers, under the pretext that they needed it in order to develop Excel, which was originally a Mac product. The Microsoft engineers had already been trying to develop a GUI but couldn’t figure out how Apple was doing a number of things, such as the mouse. They got their tour and asked how to do all the stuff they couldn’t figure out. Microsoft had been under an agreement not to use any information taken on the tour to develop a competing GUI, but the agreement only lasted one year, and they wrote Windows 1.0 during that year as a direct ripoff of the Mac, and put it on the market immediately after the year was up. No money changed hands between Microsoft and Apple, and the dominance of Windows in the marketplace was based on that piece of thievery. Apple’s business practices may or may not be worthwhile, but the main accusations against them tend to be untrue — as in this case — or heavily exaggerated.)

  23. unclefrogy says

    well I am by this time very tired of the war of Apple vs Microsoft

    Microsoft had been under an agreement not to use any information taken on the tour to develop a competing GUI, but the agreement only lasted one year, and they wrote Windows 1.0 during that year as a direct ripoff of the Mac, and put it on the market immediately after the year was up.

    they had an agreements and they followed the letter of it, so say the lawyers and the courts. They have both made vast fortunes by the very same means, Woe to anyone who writes something that they consider their ideas. you have to start from the beginning. and let the customer pay through the nose and pay the employees as little as you can get away with.
    as much as we use computers and they are great but they are all also a pain in the ass and the companies seem to seek to control us. yah they are just the same
    uncle frogy

  24. says


    Not just luck. Wealth begets wealth and raises the entry bar. Others are poor because paths to wealth are blocked. Inherited wealth is a protected enclave.

    Point in case:
    Amazon should replace local libraries and save taxpayers money.
    Written by a professor of economics.
    He followed up by saying:

    Let me clarify something. Local libraries aren’t free. Home owners must pay a local library tax. My bill is $495/year.

    Now, in Germany you don’t get told what your property tax is used for, but I am very sure that in order for the library tax to be that high, you need to be fucking rich. So you have a rich guy begrudging poor kids a library, one of the few places where they could go and study so they could have a chance of a well paid job like his one day.

    One of the biggest problems is the middle class, especially the upper middle class. They simultaneously consider themselves poor and rich. They look at a Jeff Bezos, they see themselves as nobodies. Hell, they cannot afford a yacht, they may have a nice home, but they still pay a mortgage and the kids’ education is a serious drain on the budget.
    In short, they still have to work to maintain their position.
    It’s that damn willfull obliviousness to their own economic privilege that gets you pieces like this, where an ignorant and naive 21 year old shows off her great budgeting skills by having other people to pay for everything (it’s always the parents who will in turn feel “poor”.

    But talk about the estate tax and they’re suddenly rich and feel unfairly picked on, despite the fact that their kids will never have to pay it.

    My condolences.

  25. says

    Calvinistic prosperity gospel comforts lots of well-off people. They deserve their prosperity, and those lower than them deserve to be lower.

    And it is responsible for so much of what’s wrong in the world today.

  26. petesh says

    Did you, PZ, bother to eviscerate the recent “gene for success” rubbish? Are you planning on taking apart the latest “genes for education” stuff? Antonio Regalado pointed out that the press release was headlined “Scientists ID more than 1,200 genes linked to educational attainment” although para 8 of the same release was:

    “It would be completely misleading to characterize our results as identifying genes for education,” said corresponding author Daniel Benjamin, an associate professor at the Center for Economic and Social Research at University of Southern California.