Donald Trump has said some stupendously outrageous things in his bid for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination. He has also been fascinatingly revealing – about the attitudes of extremely rich people.
“I’m the most successful person ever to run for the presidency,” Trump declared this past June. Trump’s proof? His billions. We “very successful people,” the Donald went on to add, don’t even need consultants. After all, he explained, “if the consultant’s so smart, why aren’t they rich?”
Trump is just articulating, of course, what so many of our awesomely affluent fervently believe. The rich must be “successful,” our deepest pockets assume. If they weren’t, how could they be rich?
In our staggeringly unequal contemporary America, few openly challenge this facile equating of wealth and success. But one American philosopher, Elizabeth Anderson, chair of the philosophy department at the University of Michigan, takes that challenge on.
In any society where great stashes of wealth amass at the top, Anderson reminds us that the wealthy will sooner or later see most of the rest of us as failures.
Defenders of our deeply unequal economic order – including GOP presidential hopefuls Trump and Jeb Bush – have a standard rejoinder whenever someone suggests that maybe we ought to consider taxing the rich at a somewhat higher level.
“Taking from the successful people to provide for those that aren’t isn’t the solution,” as Bush pronounced this past spring. “The solution is, How do you build capacity so people can achieve earned success?”
The core assumption behind this Bush pronouncement: Wealth equals success. Those who hold great wealth have achieved great success.
A claim this sweeping raises, of course, all sorts of philosophical questions. Economists and sociologists can’t really help us much with the answers.
The Harvard-trained Anderson may be perfectly positioned for helping us understand how wealth and inequality intersect with notions of success. She’s currently writing a history of egalitarianism from the 17th century days of the Levellers right down to the present day.
Here are excerpts of her interview with Too Much on wealth and success:
Too Much: Every society defines success. What types of societies come up with the best definitions?
Elizabeth Anderson: Dominant groups are defining success according to their own self-image.
I’m wary of any society that reduces success to a single definition. If a society is free, people will pursue different conceptions of the good and define success in different ways. They won’t be unified around a single common definition of success any more than they would be unified around a single common religion.
Now if we have a society that respects basic freedoms – the rights to pursue different conceptions of the good – and this society still appears to share a common definition of success, we most likely have a very unequal society.
We have a society where dominant groups are defining success according to their own narcissistic self-image, and that usually involves defining despised groups as unsuccessful and depriving them of the means to attain success as the dominant groups define it.
The societies that arrive at the best, plural definitions of success will be free societies of equals.
Too Much: In our current political environment, candidates like Jeb Bush and Donald Trump seem to equate success with the accumulation of wealth. Is wealth a legitimate yardstick for success?
Anderson: It’s hard to find a more absurd and corrupt, yet tempting mistake than to equate success with the accumulation of wealth.
Wealth has only instrumental value. It’s ridiculous to pursue wealth as an end in itself.
That doesn’t mean that accumulating wealth is wrong. There may be legitimate reasons to accumulate: for basic needs, security, comfort and convenience, and for the pursuit of things that do have intrinsic value – for example, among many others, education and the arts, improving the environment, and helping others.
Too Much: If we don’t define success by wealth, what other options do we have?
Anderson: Most of the projects that make life meaningful involve promoting the flourishing of other people and other living things. If someone wants to be successful, they should ask how they have improved the lives of other people or of the world. How have they made the world a better place? There are many ways to do this. Simply piling up lots of wealth for oneself is not one of them.
It’s hard to find a more absurd mistake than to equate success with wealth.
Too Much: At what point do material rewards for success, however defined, become problematic?
Anderson: Anyone who accumulates great wealth needs to ask two questions.
First, did they acquire that wealth in ways that made people better off and the world a better place to live in? Or did they acquire their wealth at others’ expense, in ways that made others suffer, that corrupted public institutions, or that undermined environmental sustainability? Did their accumulation of wealth result from activities that added net value to others’ lives, or did they merely extract value from the earth and others in order to enrich themselves?
Second, what did they do with that wealth to make people other than themselves better off and the world a better place to live in?
From the standpoint of just public policy, we need to consider how our society designs the rules of property, finance, and markets. Right now, many of our rules foster monopoly, rent-seeking, predatory and unsustainable financial practices, fraudulent dealings, labor exploitation, environmental destruction, and thousands of business models predicated on value extraction rather than value-added.
Markets and private property are indispensable to a free and flourishing society. But the rules need to be designed to ensure that everyone has effective access to the rewards of the system and that unequal rewards redound to the advantage of everyone in society, including future generations.
Too Much: What impact does equating success with wealth have on people of modest means?
Anderson: Equating success with wealth encourages the conspicuous display of wealth and ties esteem to a perverse positional competition where some can gain only if others lose. Those of modest means come to be despised because they cannot display fancy clothing, cars, jewelry, and other markers of “success.”
Equating success with wealth encourages the conspicuous display of wealth.
This dynamic is corrupting our society because merely having wealth in no way signifies that you have done anything valuable in your life. Countless ways of acquiring wealth involve no merit whatsoever. You may have inherited your wealth, for instance, or you may merely receive passive income from your ownership of an asset.
Or you may have engaged in unjust activity to have acquired your wealth. You may have manipulated markets, deceived people, exploited their vulnerabilities, created monopolies, or lobbied the state for special treatment.
Esteem should be based on what people do, not on what they have.
(The complete q & a with Anderson is at http://toomuchonline.org/how-inequality-corrupts-success/ – sthash.Hdo0ziVE.dpuf)
Veteran labor journalist Sam Pizzigati edits Too Much, a weekly journal sponsored by the Institute for Policy Studies about wealth and inequality.