The Rich in Public Opinion: What We Think When We Think About Wealth

by | Jul 10, 2020 | Books

Zitelmann offers a convincing and engaging prescription of how we can contend with the Jacobin and Guardian journalists who seem to derive damaging and dangerous conclusions from prejudices supported by nothing but empty air.

Dr Rainer Zitelmann’s new book, The Rich in Public Opinion: What We Think When We Think About Wealth,” brings a much-needed counterweight to the rent-seeking academic politics and sensationalized accounts that cloud our understanding of wealth. It gives the reader the data, along with scientific study, to help us really understand how we perceive the prosperous as we do.

Zitelmann argues that our understanding of the rich is distorted by snobbery and pessimism, aided by media stories that pander to populists, plus a set of complex yet well-explained psychological coping mechanisms. He tests these against empirical polling data, finding his theses of social envy and contrived moralities confirmed. However, in ground-breaking international analysis, he finds the British and Americans share most respect for wealth creators, very much more than their German and French cousins. This exposes our deep cultural ties with the one, and our divisions with the other, and charts across borders how an increasingly international society deals with wealth.

Zitelmann’s detailed research enlightens the reader without stodgy jargon, and is helped along by his eloquent arguments and explanations. He explains not only how inverse classism arises, but also how it is studied and perceived by biased academics. The review of scholarship is his focus, without bias or subjectivity intruding, and he arrives at his conclusions convincingly.

Unlike a partisan propagandist, he gives his readers the opportunity to develop the arguments in their own minds. For example, he points out that when participants were asked about how they understood such notions as ‘fairness’ and ‘redistribution of wealth,’ there was an overwhelming disparity between what partisans would claim, and what scientific study revealed to be their true opinions. While the vast majority of individuals initially claim that major redistribution of wealth is fair to the rich, the study’s outcome revealed that only 14-18% of over 6,000 participants studied agreed with this when probed more deeply.

Zitelmann shows that class-envy has a stunting effect, coming as it does from ingrained coping mechanisms. His eighth chapter is particularly useful, bringing in reputable research backed up by scores of citations. He finds that, in the words of Karl Marx: “their social being determines their consciousness.” He shows that the way wealth is perceived differs from culture to culture, from social group to social group, and varies with the political stance and the degree of education people have. As he concludes: “the findings of these international studies demonstrate that explanations for wealth and success vary greatly both between countries and social groups.”

Overall, Zitelmann’s new book presents a superb piece of analysis about the moral quagmire we find ourselves in today. Pulling together the neoliberal tradition of evidence-based analysis, Zitelmann offers a convincing and engaging prescription of how we can contend with the Jacobin and Guardian journalists who seem to derive damaging and dangerous conclusions from prejudices supported by nothing but empty air. His book presents us with exemplary scholarship and analysis, helping us understand the social and economic background of how the rich are perceived, and making the case for greater tolerance in our society. To say that it is well worth reading and absorbing the information presented in his pages would be an understatement, and an impoverishing one at that. I hope that as many as possible will read it and take its lessons to heart.

Article made available by the Adam Smith Institute.

Read The Rich in Public Opinion: What We Think When We Think About Wealth by Rainer Zitelmann

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Max Marlow is a past Adam Smith Institute writer and current President of the LSE Hayek Society.

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