There is one group that is not protected from hate-speech: the rich. For the rich it is permissible, and in some circles de rigueur, to speak disparagingly or hatefully. This, I imagine, is because it is widely supposed that if you hate the rich you must love the poor, and love of the poor, at least in theory, is the highest virtue. Unfortunately hatred is a much stronger political emotion, and vastly more effective in practice, than love was, is or ever will be.
That the rich are not protected from hate-speech proves that the one thing that speech codes are not designed to reduce or prohibit is hatred: for it is a distinctly moot point whether race hatred, or hatred of the rich, has been responsible for the more mass murders in the past century or so. The crimes of egalitarianism have been enormous; and so denigration of the rich is as disreputable, permissible or impermissible, as the denigration of many other groups I could name.
But who are the rich, apart from those shallow and grasping people with more money than I? If one takes the 1 per cent figure that has recently become so popular, in the United States this amounts to 3 million people. In order to hate 3 million people you have somewhat to disregard their individual characteristics, unless you believe that being rich turns people identical to one another. Even among the very rich indeed, that is to say the 0.001 per cent, with a few of whom I have had a slight acquaintance, I have noticed marked differences of character. Recently, for example, I met a billionaire whom I detested not because of his wealth, but because of his patently insincere bonhomie and ingratiating manner, which translated into a repeated, and to me repulsive, pawing of his interlocutor, whoever it was. Moreover, his ideas about general topics were generally the opposite of mine; and he was not only decadent himself (though rumored to be shrewdly ruthless in business), but—what for me was far worse—was an ideologist of decadence.
However, I have met equally rich and successful businessmen who have pleased me as much as this man displeased me.
Nevertheless, to dislike the rich ex officio is, as I have mentioned, perfectly respectable. The best-known remark of the current President of France, François Hollande, was that he did not like the rich. Would he have said that he did not like Jews, Arabs, the poor, postmen, drivers, pedestrians, bicyclists, or any other group the defining characteristic of whose membership is not itself criminal? He wouldn’t even have dared, politically, to say that he didn’t like tramps, drug addicts or alcoholics.
Perhaps he believes, with Balzac, that behind every fortune lies a great crime; or alternatively that one man’s wealth is another man’s poverty. The zero-sum game model of an economy is, after all, a very common one of which it is not altogether easy, psychologically-speaking, to rid oneself. Who has never thought of fair shares, as if living in a modern economy were like attending a children’s party in which a cake was about to be cut for all the invited children?
And, of course, there have been economies in which one man’s wealth was another man’s poverty, in which plunder was the only means of enrichment. Even in economies such as ours, there are illicit means of enrichment that reduce the wealth of society as a whole. How far the financiers, for example, have enriched themselves to the detriment of everyone else is a matter of dispute; certainly the spectacle of the heads of failed banks emerging with large personal fortunes suggests that this is not just a figment of resentful imagination. Indeed, in my own country, Britain, a form of misappropriation of funds that, while not actually illegal, is certainly not honest has become quite general in both the private and the public sectors (and it has been one of the ‘achievements’ of the past governments to foster the dissociation of legality from honesty, and of illegality from dishonesty, such that people who behave disreputably defend their conduct by saying, correctly, ‘It’s not against the law,’ as if there were no more to be said).
But none of this justifies hatred of the rich per se. The decision of France’s richest citizen, said to be the fourth richest man in the world, Bernard Arnault, to take Belgian citizenship has ignited polemics in a country in which an apparently contradictory attachment to personal wealth and possessions on the one hand, and hatred of the rich on the other, is very marked. In France many people hate those richer than themselves who are the object of the hatred of those less rich than themselves.
An article in Le Monde by an historian and political scientist, Patrick Weil, on the day following the news about M. Arnault, breathes populist resentment of the rich. For such as he, high tax rates are never a problem, only those who try to avoid paying them.
It is rarely that an American social or economic policy receives much praise in Le Monde, but M. Weil says:
At least the rich American, if he gives up his nationality [on deciding to reside elsewhere] has to pay a tax on his fortune, known as an ‘exit tax.’
And he goes on to say:
Between 2008 and 2010, the number of Americans choosing to abandon American nationality [for fiscal reasons] has multiplied by six. This phenomenon is more and more common among the Chinese, Russians and Indians, thanks to the indifference of their great countries, thanks to which they became rich.
This last phrase is, in my opinion, very revealing. It is perfectly true that no man becomes rich by his own totally unaided efforts, and that all his efforts take part in a particular social, legal, economic, political, cultural and national context. It is also true that some polities favor personal enrichment by means of cronyism, gangsterism, exploitation, clientelism and so forth.
But there is no recognition here, not the faintest glimmer of a recognition, that a man who creates a business by which he becomes rich might just be adding to the general wealth of the country in which he created it: that, for example, Henry Ford, in growing rich, impoverished no one and increased the wealth of his country. Wealth is not like a river that flows in one direction only.
François Guizot wanted the peasants to enrich themselves; François Hollande would like the rich to impoverish themselves.
This column first appeared September 14, 2012 on the Liberty Law Blog sponsored by Liberty Fund and is reprinted with permission.