Life's Lottery: How far would you go to protect the ticket that guaranteed you vast amounts of wealth and power? What wouldn't you do to protect your winning position?
IT’S TIME FOR THE RICH to come clean. We’ve given them the benefit of the doubt for far too long. We’ve assumed that, fundamentally, they’re not really all that different from the rest of us – just wealthier. We’ve taken at face value their protestations that the policies they promote are for everybody’s benefit.
None of it is true. Never has been. Never will be.
You’re sceptical, I understand that. And it’s good that you are, because it proves you’re a decent person. It shows that you’re uncomfortable with attributing evil motives to people you don’t know; and that, generally speaking, you prefer to look for the good in people.
Fair enough, you need to be convinced.
Okay, here’s a little story from the news. It’s about a couple, living in the Red Zone in Christchurch, who won Lotto. The prize was $5 million, and they had the winning ticket. But, they were living in Christchurch. At any time there could be another big earthquake. The ticket could get lost. What did they do? Well, according to the news reports, they put the winning ticket in a Ziploc bag and they tacked it to their bedpost – just in case.
It’s a charming story, and we all congratulate the lucky couple (especially since they’ve been doing it hard since the big quakes struck). But it is also a very illustrative story. It shows to what lengths people will go to make sure they do not lose their winning ticket.
Most of us protect our tickets by working hard, paying our taxes, paying the mortgage, paying our insurance premiums, obeying the law, and trying to be good friends and neighbours. But, that’s about it, because, given the size of our prize, our ticket just isn’t worth any extra protection.
But, just imagine your ticket is worth not five million, but fifty million dollars. What would you do to protect that winning ticket? Hell, what wouldn’t you do!
You certainly wouldn’t be in favour of a capital gains tax, or death duties, or a highly progressive income tax. And you certainly wouldn’t support any political party, or social movement, that promised to impose them. To be truthful, you’d probably have a pretty jaundiced view of the entire democratic process. After all, there are a great many more voters who don’t have $50 million than there are voters who do. What’s to stop them from simply using their votes to accomplish the transfer of your wealth to their pockets?
And speaking of transferring wealth: what about trade unions? Obviously, they’d be for the chop. Nobody stays wealthy for very long by sharing the profits of their enterprises with the people who actually work in them. These are, after all, businesses they running - not charities!
Let’s recap. You’re rich, and you want to stay that way. So, to protect your ticket; to safeguard your $50 million prize; you need to find a way to eliminate, or at least minimise, the threats posed by taxes, unions, and democracy. What’s your strategy?
Essentially, there’s only one winning strategy. It requires you to convince all those who are not wealthy that whatever status and security they do enjoy is the result of your own superior imagination, risk-taking and skill. You have to paint yourself and your fellow millionaires and billionaires as a “wealth creators” and, more importantly, “job creators”. You have to convince your fellow citizens that any attempt to restrict or redistribute your wealth will not only put their jobs at risk, but that society as a whole will become poorer.
If you can convince people of these things, then they will, perfectly democratically, eliminate wealth taxes, truncate workers’ rights, and reconfigure their entire political system to favour the tiny minority fortunate enough to hold the multi-million-dollar winning tickets.
But wait, there’s more. Because, as The Spirit Level shows, grossly unequal societies are beset with all manner of social pathologies. And, because these pathologies encourage political debate about the fairness and sustainability of economic inequality, there’s one more thing the wealthy must do. They must convince us that, if we’re losers, it’s our own fault. We’re just too stupid and/or lazy to be winners.
It’s what the Rich will never come clean and admit: that they’ve turned us into the Ziploc bags that keep their winning tickets safe.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times, The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 20 April 2012.