The Rich Have Not Been Idle


On Thanksgiving Day I had an unhappy conversation with a libertarian friend. The conversation started with a report of a holiday dinner he had just attended with his extended family. Inevitably, during dinner, some of his family made political statements that were, to put it mildly, counterintuitive. They were credulous believers in and campaigners for the “progressive” program of the Democratic Party — tax increases, socialized health, regulation of everything, all the ideas and causes that were exploded by rational analysis generations ago.

These people are by no means dumb. They have advanced degrees, they make their living by analysis and application of facts, and they are financially very successful. Moreover, they made their own money. They are not the idle, coupon-clipping rich. Yet they are rich.

I reflected on my own friends. Many of them are progressive Democrats. Their ideas are, as far as I can tell, precisely the same as those of the people I just described, because they believe precisely everything the “progressive” media have to say. And these people are also rich.

They were credulous believers in and campaigners for the “progressive” program of the Democratic Party, all the ideas and causes that were exploded by rational analysis generations ago.

In our society, despite the ostensible wishes of the progressives, the wealthy matter very much. One of the ways they matter is that they are the ones who fund the programmatically anti-wealth progressive movement and are determined to force everyone else to fund it too.

This is a mystery that many detectives have tried to solve. Their conclusions vary:

  • The rich have all the material stuff they want, so all that’s left to buy is power, and progressivism makes the largest offer of power.
  • The rich feel guilty because they’re rich, and progressivism claims to help the poor.
  • The minds of the rich were corrupted by teachers who envy wealth and want to redistribute it, to themselves and others, progressivism being the best means of doing that.

These theories all have merit — a lot of it, in fact. I have one theory to add.

I’ll start by asking a question. What do you call a set of ideas and practices that, though impervious to fact, arouses such strong emotions that people will sacrifice to it their time, their energy, and (at least some of) their wealth, deriving from it their ethical validation and regarding everyone who takes another view as either ignorant or immoral? If you said, “That sounds like a fanatical religion,” you are right. There has never been a fanatical religion in the modern West that has not found wealthy people to support it, no matter how much it preached against wealth.

Fortunate people! They have a religion that never constrains, always gratifies the emotions.

A couple of generations ago, fanatical religions had more competition for the bucks and reputed brains of the “propertied classes.” The competition was the non-fanatical religions, which provided plenty of opportunities for rich people to make contributions in exchange for ego benefits. In our society, however, the wealthy appear to have become irreligious at a much faster rate than anybody else. Even those who have maintained a semblance of conventional religiosity manifest no compunction about sacrificing traditional religious ideas to the temptations of political ideology. The desire to be part of a religious movement, combined with the conviction that ordinary religion is impossibly uncool, is typified by the pious tone of the wealthy Hollywood personnel who, when not happily boycotting their favorite “moral” (i.e., political) offenders, are busy purveying sex and violence. Fortunate people! They have a religion that never constrains, always gratifies the emotions.

With the very rich getting very richer and pledging ever more funds to the Church of Virtue Signaling, libertarians have a harder row to hoe than they did back in the day, when their principal opponents were the supposed representatives of the working classes — grasping labor unions and warmongering nationalists. The answer is not to try serving up libertarianism as its own substitute religion, as too many activists do. It is to preach the open, optimistic promises of a non-cult, to offer the calm and common sense that are treasured by the majority of working people — people who truly “just want to be left alone” by politicians, particularly those who make a religion out of politics. I think it is that desire, more than anything else, that elected Donald Trump, and libertarian ideas present a refreshing alternative to the rest of his message. It’s the “working class” — not the academics, and certainly not the rich — who are now our natural audience. It’s time to let them know that we’re still here.

Share This


Michael F.S.W. Morrison

Professor Hunter has made a profound offering, and maybe what I've been saying for some years compares: I refer to taxpayers as "the working and producing people."

Probably that is what others mean by "middle class."
But they, as the good professor says, are seemingly our most obvious potential audience, when we try to pitch libertarianism as the philosophy, or belief system, that will most assure their being able to keep what they've earned and to hand it down to their children.

Very nice essay, Prof. Hunter, and I thank you.

© Copyright 2019 Liberty Foundation. All rights reserved.

Opinions expressed in Liberty are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Liberty Foundation.

All letters to the editor are assumed to be for publication unless otherwise indicated.