Rich Man, Poor Man: No Insults Allowed

A well-known religious figure is reported to have said: “For ye have the poor with you always.” This is even more the case if economic inequality persists (as the history of the world suggests it might) and poverty is defined in relative terms. The same well-known figure added, however, that “whensoever ye will, ye may do them good.”

The question, of course, becomes what constitutes good in this context.

A new way of doing the poor good has been proposed in France: namely, a legal prohibition of pejorative remarks about them. It’s an idea that a British journalist, writing in the Guardian, found worthy of adoption in her own country. We may not be able to reduce poverty (howsoever defined), but at least we can boost the self-esteem of the poor and stop them feeling bad about themselves. Such, at any rate, is the theory.

Poverty, said Doctor Johnson, is an insufficiency of necessities, but this definition is far less categorical than might at first appear since what is considered a necessity tends to expand with general wealth and technical advance. I suspect that, given the choice between wholesome food and a mobile telephone, many people in the modern world would choose the telephone. No matter how much infant mortality declines or life expectancy increases, no matter what the rising tide of consumption, then, the poor we shall continue to have with us.

In a world that is supposedly meritocratic, in which the possibility of social mobility is believed to be the norm, morally if not empirically, the poor—the relatively poor, that is—have two choices, neither of them very attractive: to consider themselves failures or, as a way of avoiding doing so, to resent the difference between the world as it is supposed to be and the world as (they believe) it is. And since belief is often a determining feature of reality, the world does indeed come to resemble the one of their imagining. Even where there is opportunity, or at least no formal obstacle to advancement, they do not register this, for the manacles forged by their minds are gratifying. By which I mean being a victim of injustice has more appeal than being a failure.

No one, as far as I know, has yet advanced the idea that the rich should be protected from derogation. The same newspaper whose columnist thought it would be a good idea to censor unpleasant or insulting comments about the poor regularly publishes cartoons that, with all the subtlety of Der Stürmer, use iconography little changed from that of a century ago. Vilifying the rich is taken by the newspaper as the sign of a generous heart, and furthermore, one which costs nothing.

The rich are, of course, a small minority. We are constantly reminded of the division of the population into the 99 Percent and the One Per cent—references to which always leave me worrying neurotically about which category I belong in, my desire to be among the economically successful conflicting with a desire to be inconspicuous and ordinary. In any case it is always carelessly supposed that the members of this small group can look after themselves and require no anti-discriminatory assistance from lawmakers. The feelings of the rich do not have to be spared because 1) they have other compensations and 2) they can defend themselves.

Let us disregard the economic status of the rich and just consider the indisputable history of the 20th century. If communism counts as a form of economic egalitarianism and therefore as a movement to destroy or abolish the rich as a class, ideological antagonism toward the rich may be said to have been responsible for scores of millions of deaths. This is not altogether surprising, for if poverty is relative, so is wealth: As countries decline in wealth, so a poorer and poorer man will come to be regarded as wealthy. In Russia a kulak was often defined as a man who owned a horse, cow, or pig, and was therefore considered as an exploiter—of his fellow man, not of the horse, cow, or pig—and rightly to be eliminated. But no matter how much elimination you go in for, ye have the rich with you always.

Few emotions are as easy to stir but as difficult to control as envy and hatred of the rich. What Freud called the narcissism of small differences means that increased equality does not necessarily assuage or lessen such hatred, for there is no end to the pettiness of humankind. How much envy and jealousy are provoked by trifling differences in status?

If it were right, then, to censor the expression of dangerous or unpleasant sentiments, it would be right above all to censor expressions of economic egalitarianism, a doctrine that proved so dangerously inflammatory only a few decades ago and that we have no reason to believe could not have the same terrible effects again. Under such a law, anyone who argued that the rich ipso facto exploited the poor would be subject to prosecution for a form of so-called hate speech that has abundantly demonstrated its potential for provoking violence.

This proposal, incidentally, could be justified irrespective of the actual conduct of the rich. Personally I have not found the rich to be much better (or worse) than the poor, though it is surely easy enough to understand that if poverty is often an extenuation of bad behavior, wealth is sometimes an aggravating circumstance. But what we are concerned with here is not the actual conduct of the rich, but the effects—and they have been historically disastrous—of provoking hatred of them.

I hope it is needless to say that I do not really think people who shout “Rich bastard!” (odd how the connotation of the word bastard has survived social acceptance of bastardy itself), or even Nobel prize-winning economists such as Paul Krugman, should be hauled away and prosecuted. For the term “hate-speech” is itself hateful—a provocation of the very emotion that those who make use of it claim to hate.

Preserving them from insult will do them no more good, at least in a secularized world, than telling them they are the beloved of God.

Reader Discussion

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on August 26, 2015 at 16:17:31 pm

The ancient writer claimed the speaker was Jesus and the complete quote is, “The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me.” Not good advice.

Three changes are needed to correct the grievous error of living by such bad advice:

1. Base civic morality on physics based ethics instead of Christianity.
2. Regard the literal preamble to the constitution for the USA as the coordinator of domestic civic obligations.
a. Keeping parallel essence, revise the preamble’s goals for 2015 living, e.g., “form a more perfect union” might become “act with integrity,” with the double entendre.
b. Turn the focus upside down—from protecting adults to protecting children, grandchildren, and beyond.
c. Accept that the preamble defines not “We the People of the United States” (coercion perhaps inadvertently left by the author, Gouverneur Morris), but a civic people of the United States.
3. Following Item 2. b., take responsibility for the economic and psychological abuse We the People of the United States brooks as some members perpetrate the offenses.
a. Create legislative measures to stop funding the cycle of child abuse by the abused child emerged as an adult.
b. End the protection of capitalism by keeping the ignorant enslaved to the belief that faith, family, community and hard work produce the American dream: involve the poor in capitalism as owners, not just consumers.

I have described some of the work of A Civic People of the United States.

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Phil Beaver
on August 26, 2015 at 18:30:25 pm

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on August 27, 2015 at 12:49:11 pm

Your obvious attempt to re-brand the moors and definition society places on common decency as "politically correct" is just pathetic. During the Spanish Inquisition actions contrary to the moors of society would get you tortured to death. Those ever changing moors have been in in place for tens if not hundreds if thousands of of thousands of years. Your argument is basically why shouldn't I use the "N" word frequently, after all it it is your right. Do it and two months later you will have no friends, no one will publish your drivel and you will be ostracized by society. All because of societies moors. Idiot.

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on August 30, 2015 at 23:28:20 pm

Losers, particularly low status men, know they're losers, no matter how you try to sanitize the language. In my own lifetime I have seen the "handicapped" become "disabled", then "people with disabilities", then "differently abled" - and you know what, no one still wants to employ them. I will enjoy the language contortions around this one very much!

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on August 31, 2015 at 21:46:00 pm

Moors were Muslim inhabitants of the Maghreb, the Iberian Peninsula, Sicily, and Malta during the Middle Ages. The word you're looking for is 'mores' , which are "the essential or characteristic customs and conventions of a community". And it's not even pronounced the same. It's pronounced 'more-ays'

You know, when you call someone an idiot in the comments section, it's a good idea to make sure you're not using misspellings, poor grammar, or, god forbid, the entirely wrong word, which you apparently wouldn't even know how to pronounce correctly if you *did* have the cajones to call someone an idiot to his face.

By the way, how many books have *you* written?

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on September 05, 2015 at 17:25:47 pm

No levity is intended here, but a morality based on physics (Newtonian? Quantum? String theory?) is intriguing. I'd appreciate further details.

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Kenneth E
on September 05, 2015 at 17:41:08 pm

Good thoughts in this entry by Dr. Dalrymple, but I wonder that if those more materially well off than the rest of us had less ire pointed their way (or perceived of less), would they in the main act any differently? Wouldn't they continue to live in gated communities (those that do, anyway), employ bodyguards and drivers, purchase expensive alarm, access control and CCTV systems, etc. to protect what's theirs? True, not every rich person behaves on this manner. I just wonder if perception on this level is as important as the good Doctor has indicated.

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Kenneth E
on September 06, 2015 at 10:26:18 am

We appreciate your interest.

Google--Theory of Collaboration Of By and For a Civic People--to see how it works. A few key definitions are needed. "Civic" refers to necessary public interactions, as opposed to "social" which implies choice, as in "my social circles."

"Physics" is energy, mass, and space-time from which everything emerges rather than the study of those three entities. The progression is like big bang, cosmic chemistry, high temperature inorganic chemistry, formation of the planets etc, organic chemistry, life, animals, awareness, humanoids, trade and language and grammar, religion and ethics, competition and cooperation, and collaboration.

For details about physics-based ethics, please google--Physics-based Ethics: Civic Examples--with awareness that the theory was simply stated by Albert Einstein in his 1941 speech to a conference on physics and its constructed competition: religion. I became fascinated with that speech in 2011, and 2014-2015, library discussions in Baton Rouge brought it to candid collaboration to determine civic morality using physics-based ethics. On the soft side, we never lie so that we can believe the statements of other people (Einstein’s only example in the 1941 speech) and on the hard side, we never run red lights so that we can hubba hubba through green lights. Some other examples we present are not so easy—need collaboration by a civic people.
We think 70% of inhabitants who come to understand the theory—a civic people (of the United States eventually)—will start contributing to the practice right away. With fast dissemination of the understood message, this country could adopt civic morality almost overnight.

It will take recognition by most people that their civic security is a prerequisite to cultural pursuits. Thus, someone, who believes a religion, does not question another person’s religious morality, admitting that the other party’s religious morality differs. However, both parties candidly, joyously work for civic collaboration to empower their no-harm personal pursuits. This civic practice is common for queuing to enter the symphony hall or a stadium concert or boarding a plane. It can also be common respecting issues like slavery.

Physics-based ethics informs humans that one human cannot own the product of another human’s labor. Consider the free trade negotiation: the slave promises her labor for nothing; the master accepts the labor without obligation; this trade cannot happen without the master's force, which is unethical. But the master cites literature to justify rebuking physics. As a consequence, the slave regards that literature the witness of evil.

For America, the consequence is a class of people who always thought their god was white and another class or culture who thinks the god is black. These two cultures are divided by history that is millennial in scope and cultures to blame: Africans enslaving Africans, papal bulls, Protestant charters, economic systems, etc. There is nothing wrong with the two cultures preserving their views of history and in fact it is necessary--in order to avoid repetition of the evil. Also, there is value in exchanging interpretations of the literature--the image of a divine skin color seems false if one considers mitochondrial DNA and the biological physics of pigmentation. And peoples with other interpretations are involved, for example, people whose gods are red and others. That’s a valid discussion. And the discussion can be conducted by people who are aware that they need civic morality in order to preserve their factional culture.

Quoting the call to action in our presentation for September 20, Second Annual Constitution Day Celebration, “This generation can establish A Civic People of the United States. The inhabitants of the United States can talk to each other.” A couple asked, “What is the objective?” I replied, “No-harm personal liberty and domestic goodwill—PL&DG.” The warm, broad grins were contagious.

If you can, please attend our meeting or contact a friend who lives in the area and ask them to attend and inform you. It is announced at http://theadvocate.com/calendar/#/details/Second-Annual-Constitution-Day-Celebration/1668335/2015-09-20T14 .

The theory needs the support of constitutional scholars. We assert that no constitutional change is needed. However, civic collaboration foretells reform, and the more physics-based the changes the more life preserved, and misery and loss will be lessened (borrowing from Einstein’s warm words.

Please share your reaction to this post, too. We learn from everyone who responds. Even the word "collaboration," which is precious to the theory, came about in a rapid, blunt debate following tacit objection to "governance" (thank you Rich), which came from the Gettysburg address and our own mind tunnel, but is the wrong idea. Civic people do not govern each other nor do they cooperate nor do they commune: they collaborate (thank you Rebekah) for PL&DG. We look to future discussions for improvement on these statements.

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Phil Beaver
on September 06, 2015 at 10:34:03 am

Sorry: "the slave regards that literature the witness of evil." should be "the slave regards that literature as the witness of evil."

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Phil Beaver

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.