The 'evil' one per cent

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The one percent are the enemy.

This statement was made by a retired professor I know very well at a dinner party over the weekend. I was shocked and amazed by how unequivocally, baldly he made the claim.

We’ve had a couple of years of hating the “rich”  - that whole “We are the 99%” thing – and the sentiment probably still has legs in many circles.

So I asked this former professor who he thought the one per cent are. Did he know the owners of successful small businesses probably qualify? So do doctors and lawyers. I named other professions, too, including his own: some academics would be among the one per cent.

Is this the enemy, this class of educated, successful people?

He backtracked. No, the bad people are the really, really rich.

Ah, yes, of course, we just need to go higher up the food chain to find the real villains.

Here’s what I think: there are good people and bad people and you find them at all income levels. The wealthy, powerful good people can do a lot of good, and the wealthy, powerful bad people can do a lot of bad. What I reject is the idea middle class people living in one of the wealthiest nations on the planet have any credibility pointing at those wealthier than them and claiming they’re bad because of their success.

Now, a hardcore Marxist who lives in a box and gives all his money to help poverty-stricken neighbours would have credibility complaining about wealthy people: “No one should have a Mercedes until everyone has food.”

It’s an argument with some moral weight. It’s not how I choose to live my life, but I can see that it’s morally consistent. The Marxist isn’t a hypocrite.

But those of us who choose to have big screen TVs, newish cars, shop at our local retailers buying Chinese-made toys for our kids, eating out at restaurants, buying our six-packs – basically living the way at least 90-per cent of Canadians live - we don’t get to enjoy our wealth (yes, by global standards, it’s wealth) and then bitch about the people who have more than us.

When we order pizza, how many of us stop and say, “No, that would be extravagant, in a world where Sudanese families survive on a few dollars a day.” Very few, of course. The point is, all of us are fat cats compared to the global masses of the poor. Does that mean we’re bad?

I don’t think it does. I think it makes us human.

We’d all be better if we devoted more resources to helping our fellow humans. I don’t believe, though, it’s a moral requirement. Good, absolutely, but required in order to ‘not be bad’? No. Charity isn’t owed, charity is given as a gift.

You might think that’s wrong. The 99-per cent seem to think so. They turn a blind eye to their own wealth in a sea of poverty (the absurdity of first world college students complaining about wealth, in one of the safest, most affluent countries in the world, is just laughable) and espouse greater taxes on ‘the fat cats’.

What would these taxes be used for? Well, the money would be redistributed to those who need it, of course – and that distribution would be performed by an ever-growing bureaucracy, helmed by a politician elected to do the ‘people’s will’.

Now we get to the core of the fallacy: government good, private bad. If we give government more power, if we give it more tax revenue, we will have greater justice.

But as I’ve said in previous posts and above, there are good and bad people in powerful positions, and when you give government more power, that doesn’t create more good, it just makes government more attractive to people who want to exert power.

Government does its best work when it acts as a powerful check against the potential rapacity of big business. By keeping government small but robust in a regulatory capacity, we can prevent the worst potential instincts of government and private business. Siphoning money into swollen government departments hoping the outcome will be a better society is a fantasy.

The one percent aren’t some sinister star chamber who gather in a secret hideout to plot squeezing every last dime out of the poorest citizens. The one per cent are your neighbours. Some of them volunteer their time or donate money to local causes, and some of them don’t. Some of them are even jerks, but they might still be jerks if they only made $10 grand a year, too.

Even the evil intentions of successful big businesses are grossly inflated. These businesses make their money meeting consumer demand. Most of us choose to use their services. For the publicly-traded, big companies, their owners are often regular people – middle class or upper middle class investors, or pension schemes paid into by middle class professionals, such as teachers.

The point isn’t that everyone is good. It’s that the large majority of us, wealthy or poor, are good most of the time and not good upon occasion, too. We are probably all selfish often, and more concerned about ourselves and our immediate loved ones than we are about anonymous poor people we’ve never met. Most of us enjoy a lifestyle that would not be environmentally sustainable if everyone else on the planet lived the way we do in Canada, and while we all like to take modest steps to be better about polluting, to help the needy and to behave as decent people, few of us are willing to become martyrs to the cause of social justice, nor are we required to be.

Fundamentally, we’re organisms trying to find safety and comfort for ourselves, our mates and our offspring. Those are the real ‘99-per cent’ values.

The pursuit of money and power does contain real dangers for humanity’s future, but it also contains the seeds of a bold, incredible future for our species. We must harness capitalism and do a better job preventing its worst corporate excesses, but we must guard equally against putting our faith in Draconian government, bloated with overfunded bureaucracies that take it upon themselves to create their own vision of so-called social justice.

We should desire small, fast government, focused primarily on 1) policing industry to ensure a fair and safe marketplace, and 2) helping the small number of citizens who truly need society’s collective assistance.

Our government should be the regulator of the engine, not the engine itself.


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