The Well-To-Do Minority

Octopus Cartoon The well-to-do minority is often in a more precarious position than the poor minority. Prejudice against him is far more potent and destructive than prejudice against the obviously downtrodden.

The human mind naturally has sympathy with the downtrodden. It is true that this can be overridden by tribal instincts. But it is important that sympathy and tribalism are in conflict here. Seeing your enemy in a pitiable situation will temper tribal wrath; at least it won’t further inflame it. Granting that great evil can be done in the meantime, the historical record seems to indicate that prejudice of this sort is self-limiting, at least in the long run.

The well-to-do minority, on the other hand, tribalism and pity agree upon. If they’re better off than we are anyway, what’s to pity? This sort of prejudice is far more dangerous precisely because it’s easier to indulge in. It appears not only to not be self-limiting, but on the contrary to persist through generations and even in the most respectable historical accounts.

The Pervasiveness Of It

Actual discrimination against and oppression of well-to-do minorities is all around if you start looking for it. The modish focus on “structural oppression” has entirely blinded us to it. The structural oppression argument uses pity as a bludgeon against tribalism. So far so good. And yet, what of our tribal instincts against people who need no pity? Not only does the structural oppression argument fail to temper tribalism; it even exalts and justifies it. If they are rich, they must be oppressing us, and thus anything we do to retaliate is justified!

This is in fact one of the easiest ways to get people on board with mass oppression: to convince the majority that they are in fact being oppressed. Stalin was able to cement his control by pinning blame for repeated political failure on relatively wealthy farmers, the Kulaks. Despite their wealth, a Kulak in Soviet Russia would easily have been the least enviable position to be in, in a place where all positions were unenviable. In Europe, Jews did well for themselves by moneylending when that activity was still forbidden to Christians; they were continually harassed, expelled, and eventually massacred (Incidentally, the Holocaust seems to be the point at which Western intellectuals stopped seeing Jews as the well-to-do minority and started seeing them as actually oppressed, and thus worthy of sympathy). Israel does better than its Arabic neighbors, because it’s the only thoroughly Westernized nation in the area (or would it be more correct to say that the West is the most thoroughly Judaized?); those neighbors unrelentingly harass and threaten Israel, and indulge in wild conspiracy theories to justify it.

Tax the rich Similarly, ethnic Chinese do well in Malaysia, and for this reason face systematic employment discrimination and suspicion from the Malay majority. Even in the U.S., Asians have done the best out of any immigrant group, which would seem to indicate a social capital explanation for any existing disparities, rather than “structural oppression”. For their trouble, they get systematically discriminated against in admissions to top universities. And when self-styled minority advocates for more (ethnic) diversity among high-skill (and thus high-status) jobs, Asians, who are already disproportionately represented in such jobs, don’t count as a minority. Being self-sufficient and successful, they have no claim to sympathy.

Indeed, one way of reading the recent preoccupation with inequality is that it’s the perfect distillation of this impulse. No longer are we prejudiced against some particular well-to-do minority; instead, the well-to-do are the minority as such.

Dominance vs. Prestige

The systemic oppression narrative sees “privilege” as relatively monolithic: though it arises out of many different characteristics, and has many aspects, it’s essentially the same sort of thing from one case to the next. From this perspective, there is rather little difference between privilege arising from race, sex, wealth, or social class. If this is the case, it doesn’t make any sense to talk about a rich minority being oppressed. Wealth, after all, is an expression of privilege!

Against the unity of privilege, it seems more useful to distinguish between two sorts of privilege or status: dominance and prestige.

If dominance is the kind of status we get from intimidating others, prestige is the kind of status we get from doing impressive things or having impressive traits or skills. A schoolyard bully is an example of pure dominance. He’s not impressive, only aggressive. Stephen Hawking and Malala Yousafzai (winner of the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize), on the other hand, are examples of pure prestige. You’re likely to treat them with deference and respect, though neither is threatening to stuff you in a locker.

It might help to think of these as different systems, each of which can be broken down into a high-status component and a low-status component. So Dominance & Submission are one complementary pair (of interlocking instincts, emotions, and behaviors), while Prestige & Admiration are a different complementary pair.

Any “privilege” enjoyed by the Kulak or the Malaysian Chinese must consist entirely in prestige. Being excluded from the political system, dominance is not an option for them. But prestige, of course, is threatening to dominance, which in modern states is invested primarily in the political system.

The merging of dominance and prestige into some monolithic “privilege” seems to be a convenient misdirection which serves the ends of the dominant by limiting certain outlets of prestige, especially wealth, and concentrating prestige on those who are already dominant (political leaders).

Norms Against Prestige

Despite humans being one of the very few animals to operate on the basis of prestige at all, there seem to be powerful and pervasive norms for preventing the accumulation of too much prestige – which, no doubt, is why prejudice against the well-to-do resonates so powerfully on such a wide scale across so many societies.

The limiting of prestige is surely one of the most important norms which Hayek (1960, p. 93) claims “are still more adapted to the life of a hunter than to life in civilization.” And sure enough, one sees the accumulation of prestige through wealth most actively thwarted in hunter-gatherer societies. Polly Wiessner (1977) gives an example from the !Kung San in Botswana:

An individual or family living in a San community does not maintain the right to drop out of the system of generalized reciprocity altogether and amass wealth. Such families pose a threat to the surrounding community as a whole and are quickly leveled by social pressure—examples of this leveling process abound today when individual families try to switch to food production.

Perhaps the best example of an individual being leveled by social pressure that I saw among the San occurred at /ai/ai in 1974. . . . [O]ne particularly productive man with no children, had been working constantly making crafts and had amassed a considerable amount of cash. With this he purchased three pregnant heifers and seed to plant crops. Because he was one of the more successful hunters and trappers at /ai/ai and because his new activities interfered with his hunting, the rest of the population felt very threatened that he would drop out of hunting and gathering altogether. Gradually pressure was put on him in casual remarks and when he did not respond, turned to animated discussions and joking to insult. . . . The criticism occurred both in his presence and absence, something rare among the San who commonly criticize people to their face, but avoid gossip behind their backs. At first, the individual ignored the remarks, but in the end, he slaughtered one of his cows, distributed the meat widely and with cash that he had been saving to purchase more cows, bought a horse that others could hunt on to kill large game. Once leveled, all criticism ceased and the matter was not so much as mentioned again.

But these types of norms are by no means limited to hunter-gatherer societies. Gary Miller (1992, ch. 5) documents the repeated spontaneous emergence of workplace norms designed to suppress excellence in otherwise ambitious employees, much to the dismay of employers.

To resent the successful, whether in the tribe, the workplace, or the economy at large, seems to be the great impediment to human advancement, the source of the greatest evils in recorded history, and quite possibly the greatest danger to what advancement humanity has achieved. So why does it exist? Is it narrowly rational to resent the successful? Is it rational in a functionalist sense? Was it rational in a different institutional setting, but not anymore? Or is it just an unfortunate quirk of the human brain?


CulturePrivilegePolly Wiessner


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