As a confirmed member of the Ninety-Nine Percent, I do not believe that the One Percent has too much money. I think that it does not have money enough.
Even President Obama is unclear about his reasons for wanting to raise taxes on the well-to-do (the people with an income of $250,000 he regards as part of the filthy rich), the rich (the smaller millionaires), and the superrich (the biggest millionaires and the billionaires). At times he enthuses about everything the federal government could do to help pay for schools, hospitals, scientific research, public works, and so forth, with the extra revenue derived from the wealthy. In other moments, he makes plain that he thinks their money gives them an undemocratic (and, thus, supposedly “unfair”) advantage in power, influence, and the pursuit of happiness over their fellow citizens. Still again, the President argues that everyone should suffer from the economic depression and his own disastrous policies for financial recovery (as if Warren Buffet would “suffer” from being taxed a third, or even a half, of his wealth). In the 1960’s William Buckley pointed out that, if the total assets of every millionaire and billionaire in America were appropriated by the IRS, the sum would be insufficient to run the federal government for more than several months. Probably even the ignoramus Obama knows as much; certainly, Timothy Geithner does.
The war on the One Percent is demagoguery of the cheapest and most obvious sort, described by critics of democracy from ancient Greece down to the present day. The “poor” are many, the “rich” are few, and the one-man, one-vote principle ensures that the nonrich will outvote the wealthy and steal their money, egged on by the politicians who, in effect, buy their votes in exchange for the power these votes deliver them. But the present crusade is not based on envy alone, but on democratic moralism. An example is the conviction (no reason given) that a man can have too much money—not for his own good, but for everybody’s else. The problem here is that no one has ever found a way to calculate how much money too much money really is. Another is the belief that political equality is insufficient, and that “true” democracy implies at least rough economic equality as well. Chesterton likened the vast property holdings of the duke of Westminster, the richest man in Britain at the time, to a monopoly control of the womenfolk in the Sceptered Isle. (This is one of the few occasions on which Chesterton’s flights of poetic fancy irritates me more than it amuses.) And a third is the assumption that the rich have acquired their fortunes (A) illegally; (B) ruthlessly, at the expense of the rest of us; or (C) in occupations that are socially and morally degrading or unproductive, and thus undeserving of huge financial reward.
Objections A and B are the meat of the case against the Establishment by the Occupy Movement, whose members see themselves as personal victims of Wall Street and what a century ago were called “The Interests.” As populist talking points, they have a long history in America, going as far back as colonial times. Objection C, however, is, historically speaking, the aristocratic case against the financial and industrial plutocracy. Nobody ever made that case, in a wholly nonpolemical way, as well as Walter Bagehot in The English Constitution, where he defends the aristocracy against its democratic critics. The order of nobility, Bagehot wrote, preserved English society from a series of idolatries, especially “the rule of wealth, the religion of gold”; the worship of office; and the conflation of political power with social position. (The Queen, he noted, not Her Majesty’s Prime Minister, stands at the head of society.) So long as aristocracy endured, English society offered something of higher value than money and the “conspicuous life”; this something was placed beyond the reach of vulgar ambition, of “clever base people” and “stupid base people” alike. “In revering wealth we reverence not a man, but an appendix of a man; in reverencing inherited nobility, we reverence the probable possession of a great faculty—the faculty of bringing out what is within one.” The aristocracy, Bagehot argued, should stand above the plutocracy, though it should not reflexively reject the plutocrats’ admiring advances. In his view, the English aristocracy was the fixed and irreplaceable seat of English civilization, on which English polity, along with the rest of English tradition, depended.
Objection C is never expressed today in the polemic against the One Percent. There are two reasons for the apparent oversight. The first is that the One Percent is not an aristocracy; the second is that the Ninety-Nine Percent does not resent it for not being one. Indeed, it would resent it all the more if it did exhibit aristocratic qualities. For democrats, aristocracy adds insult to injury by adding social distinctions of birth to material and political advantage conferred by the brute power of money. Though the Ninety-Nine Percent is only vaguely and intermittently aware of the fact, the aristocratic insult persists in the ghostly remnant of the old American aristocracy (in the South, mostly, but also in New England and the Middle Atlantic states) that, being largely deprived of its former social, economic, and political status, is nearly invisible to the new levelers. Thanks to its invisibility to socially unsophisticated Americans who are quick to recognize the attributes of wealth but blind as moles to those of breeding, the old aristocracy is ignored by the rabble in mad pursuit of the glittering postmodern plutocracy, which for the Ninety-Nine Percent is America’s equivalent of the ancien régime.
Still, Objection C, the most substantial indictment against the One Percent, is also the strongest argument for leaving its wealth largely intact and allowing it to fructify, not in terms supply-side economists understand but for social reasons. Great wealth in good hands is the fons et origo of civilization. In circumstances where it is held by uncivilized and irresponsible people, there is a need to encourage the barbarian nouveaux riches to civilize themselves. Because modern society has failed to produce a genuine upper class as an alternative to the plutocratic one, the sole way to restore civilization is to give the plutocracy the opportunity to train itself up to something approaching the level of the old aristocracy it displaced. But it cannot accomplish this self-transformation without money and leisure, and plenty of them. A civilized, as opposed to a “democratic,” tax policy would facilitate the creation of great fortunes and, by the repeal of the inheritance tax, give the old new rich the means to protect their financial and social position against the would-be new new rich seeking to challenge them from below, as the entrenched meritocratic system permits them to do. (John Adams liked to say that he became a lawyer so that his son might become a wealthy man, and his grandson a philosopher—which, indeed, is pretty much how the history of the Adams family turned out.) What is needed is a new American aristocracy, in fact if not in name; and an aristocracy can be neither created nor sustained unless it is allowed to create advantages for itself and defend them, including by force of privilege. Advantage, of course, encourages social and economic inequality; but inequality, besides being a wholly natural thing, is a civilized one as well. For example, inequality makes possible private patronage, and private patronage is the lifeblood of the fine arts, the sciences, letters, and learning. Today, the alternative to the private patron is democratic government and the philistine politicized patronage that is far worse than no patronage at all—a system of antipatronage that subsidizes antiart and pseudolearning while dismissing all that came before them as the work of dead white men, products of an ignorant and brutal cultural backwater at the western edge of the Asian continent that somehow, for 25 dark and bloody centuries, succeeded in persuading the world to fear, admire, and copy it.
Aristocracy is an inheritance from the agrarian age of human history, and the connection between it and landed wealth is a close one. So close, indeed, that the two things are really economically and socially inseparable. Ownership and control of broad acres, as the English say, amount to holding down a portion of the physical realm beneath your feet: real wealth, not, like stocks and bonds, wealth of the abstract sort. Removed from the context of agrarian society, aristocracy in the classic sense is an impossibility. That should not discourage us from looking to identify its nearest equivalent, however imperfect and unsatisfactory, in postindustrial society. Every society headed by an upper class is an hierarchical society, but hierarchy and liberty are not contradictory things. Indeed, the United States was most truly a free country in the period between 1789 and the age of Jackson, while the colonial social hierarchy persisted; the same may be said of Great Britain during the same period, before the First Reform Act of 1832. Certainly, America and Britain were freer and less constrained societies in the early 19th century than they are in the 21st. The popular confusion of “democracy” with “freedom”—and, especially, with “liberty”—has always been a dangerous one.
American society from colonial days has had great faith in education, and self-education. Originally, the emphasis, in the Southern aristocratic colonies especially, was on educating the sons of wealthy families to assume high position in society and government. Since the second half of the 19th century, Americans have stressed educating the lower classes to learn useful trades and stay out of trouble. But the lower classes will never be educated in the proper sense of the word. What is wanted now is an educated plutocracy—self-educated beyond the philistine meritocratic training it received at the prestigious preparatory schools and universities listed on its résumé—eager to acquire some of the attributes of the historical aristocratic class that would allow it to approximate the role in society that the traditional aristocracy played in shaping civilization.
Is it possible for a Wellington, a Salisbury, or a Churchill to evolve, over generations, from such inferior stock as the Gateses, the Buffets, and the Waltons; the Kennedys, the Cuomos, and the Romneys? Perhaps not. Indeed, the odds are against it. (On the other hand, Enoch Powell was the grandson of a coal miner.) But it is the only hope for civilization in an age wholly inimical to civilized values. We have nothing to lose from giving the plutocracy the chance, except the checks it sends to the IRS every year.