In Defense of the Fabulously Rich

Robin Hanson, my favorite intellectual provocateur, says that the super-rich are almost always virtuous. I’m inclined to agree, except that the type of virtue in making lots of money can involve malfeasance, self-serving negligence, and fraud - Enron, Pfizer (Vioxx), various banks encouraging non-scrutiny of fraudulent home assessments and income declarations, mortgage-backed-securities and credit default swaps, poisonous baby formula and toothpaste, unsafe counterfeit rock-climbing gear, etc.

I don’t know how frequent such occurrences are (reporting them is crowd pleasing, so I can’t just think ‘I hear about it all the time, so it must be really common!’), but to the extent that we effectively punish such crimes by removing most of the perpetrators’ wealth, then it would be even more true that the presently rich are likely virtuous.

For some reason, often only a fraction of a criminal’s wealth is removed, even though violent or drug crimes of lesser harm result in the entirety of a person’s freedom being removed. I also assume that people trying to win in competitive businesses are routinely guilty of lies, collusion, etc., but that’s just part of the game and not part of the ‘virtue’ meant.

I’m not sure that, aside from Gates+friends’ recent push to secure large donations (50% of wealth?) from many of the so-rich-they-can-afford-it, we should expect successful rich people to be especially selfless. One of the reasons many modestly wealthy people have so much as they do is from a practice of selfish frugality. I don’t equate charity with virtue, but it does seem fantastic that Gates+friends are trying to spend money in a way that improves more human lives (by more), instead of just donating to the poorest U.S. citizens who are competent to apply for aid (whose biggest problem, I presume, is the terrible behavior of their neighbors, and not a lack of medical care, food, safe water, internet access, etc.).

I suppose it is bad for middle-class U.S. citizens if the rich decide that they want to use their influence to secure lower tax rates (on the rich) so they can spend more helping foreign poor. Naturally, the rich are still spending plenty of money on status and pleasure goods, but I think it’s fair of them to have little allegiance to their native country.