Friday, March 19, 2010

Why does it seem natural to feel cold toward those who've acquired wealth?

In an Econ Talk podcast a few years back, host Russ Roberts summarizes one of Walter Williams' putatively great economic insights (begins 41:15):

Through most of human history, you got rich stealing from your neighbor; through plunder, taking something that belonged to somebody else by knocking him over the head and grabbing his stuff. But it's only recently that you can get rich by serving your fellow man.
I would be interested in hearing arguments concerning how far this goes in explaining the human evolutionary predisposition toward despising those who have more than one has himself. In pre-agricultural societies, which were far more egalitarian than anything in the contemporary developed world, could this go hand-in-hand with desire to censure cheaters and hoarders? Is there even a difference before agrarian existence begins?

Or might the evolutionary basis for disdain of those who have more have arisen with the onset of settled societies capable of producing and storing excess wealth, and thus allowing for social stratification to occur? Once settled, agricultural societies began coming into existence in the Fertile Crescent 10,000 years ago, those who didn't directly produce began living off the fruits of those who did, often (though not always) against the latters' will, as in the cases of military conquest or taxation. Following the onset of the Industrial Revolution, it is easy to see how Henry Ford's acquisition of wealth improved the lives of the vast majority of the people touched by the cars his company manufactured in the process. It is more difficult to see how ancient and medieval rulers (or any other persons of high social status and great affluence at during this time range) could be perceived in the same glowing light by the commoners of their societies.

For some (especially among those on the political left), acquirers of wealth are presumed to have gained such vast affluence through immoral (or at least ammoral) exploitation or downright theft. I hear Dave Matthews singing:
Caught for stealing somebody's riches? Oh no, no, no, no. But wouldn't you like to retire, with a million bucks? Um, yeah.
Stories that fit this narrative (ie Ken Lay, Bernie Madoff) garner enormous public attention, and the tabloid market thrives off the public's desire to see those at the top fall from grace.

Are these inclinations instinctive due to general mammalian competitiveness, or can they be defined more narrowly as an evolutionary vestiges (at least in the developed world) of a functional disdain for those of great wealth at a time when such was wealth was almost exclusively acquired through value transfer rather than value creation?

If memory serves (although I'm having trouble finding where, specifically), Razib has asserted that humanity is in some ways swinging back toward the dispositions of hunter and gatherer societies. Those of sedentary societies gained after the onset of agriculture but have since peaked and are now in decline, to be replaced by those existing previously. Is this a potential illustration of that phenomenon, or merely an example of someone with no scientific training spinning evolutionary theories to explain why humans act the way they do?


Howard Roark said...

Interesting post, but definitely off the mark. Liberalism is about equality and collectivism whereas conservatism is about freedom and individualism. That is why liberals hate rich people, to them they would rather all be poor than the idea one person has more than them. Look at Cuba, liberals love it despite the blatant economic joke that it is.

silly girl said...

Hmm, I really never thought of this idea that people generally got rich taking it from another. First it must be created. I thought of them getting rich through proficient leadership such as gaining the loyalty of the successful leading men in the area and becoming the chief. This could be done by being a good leader in some local battles to keep the competing tribes at bay. Another example of wealth would be having the biggest herd of goats, etc. The way to have the biggest herd would be to have many hardworking sons who would faithfully tend them etc. A poor leader could not raise hardworking sons and would not keep the loyalty of his sons. Protecting the village and raising goats serves the interest of others as well as oneself. What good is your labor if no one else has anything to trade you for it?

Things have changed since then no doubt, but the path to wealth still seems to be vision, leadership, discernment, diligence, intelligence in the service of others who will trade the fruit of their labors for yours.

Anonymous said...

Read Howard Bloom's "The Genius of The Beast" on this subject. He lays out a pretty compelling theory.

Nanonymous said...

Why complicate things unnecessarily? Envy/jealousy is a universal emotion. Evolutionary, has to do with competitiveness. Seeds of it can probably be found in all social animals. That's the root.

Audacious Epigone said...


That is the current political dynamic in the US, yes. But are you asserting that hostility towards those at the top is solely the domain of leftists? Is it not more universally felt?


To some extent at the small-scale, localized level, yeah. But I am thinking in terms of military conquests (ie the Mongols across Asia, the Normans into Britain, the Germanic tribes overtaking the Roman empire, and the spoils of war that constituted part of the way regulars in armies were compensated).

Anonymous said...

Yeah, but you can only leach for so long off another civilization. The power of creating wealth is a greater power. If you keep inventing and producing new and better, you have more to trade and you become more powerful despite your rivals' militancy.

I think I feel colder toward the very rich because I feel like they have the upper hand in any dealing and it is just a visceral reaction to the perception of power. I don't know if most males would feel the same. I guess I am like most people and hang out with people similar social economic group. You could also ask what/whether people feel something toward those of less means/accomplishment.

silly girl said...

I left the 10:52 Anon comment.

Steve Sailer said...

People in hunter-gatherer tribes tend to act quite jealous toward the best hunters. There is a lot of sniping at the most competent man in the tribe intended to keep him from getting a big head.