When I was somewhere in that blurry, ego-development state between 7 and 9, I remember thinking that if I was king of the world things would be different (sort of like Max in “Where the Wild Things Are”). I just knew. I would be good. I would be tolerant. If they’d only just give me the chance, if I owned the world, it would be a better place. About 15 years later, I found myself at a Libertarian “think tank,” called the Acton Institute where they began with the fundamental axiom from Lord Acton himself, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” While I didn’t subscribe to where their philosophies generally led from there, I have to admit that it’s a pretty safe statement.
So should it really be any surprise that a recent University of California study has found that people from privileged, wealthy backgrounds are more likely to be dishonest and unethical than their poorer counterparts? I suppose if there is a surprise here, the irony is that the wealthy should have less reason to lie, steal, and cheat. Honestly, though, is it really news that people of different social classes behave differently? I guess the wealthy are a prime target these days.
The problem I have with such studies (whatever their specific intent), is that even with all the appropriate qualifications about how this doesn’t apply to all wealthy people, and how it also doesn’t apply across the board in reverse (the poorer you are, the more “moral” you are likely to be), it seems more potentially damaging than helpful. Paul Piff, the study’s lead researcher, insists that he’s not out to wage any kind of class warfare, rather he hopes his research will help bridge policy gaps. One solution? Make ethics classes mandatory for all business and economics students, he tells NBC News. He also notes that even just watching a film on childhood poverty encourages people of all classes to behave more ethically toward others.
Theoretically, the wealthy behave with less regard for others because they are less dependent on others for social bonds. I think the wealthy are just like the poor, with one major difference: they have the means to absorb their mistakes. Still, however we feel about this study, we all would like to have a little more stockpiled wealth, would we not? Money means freedom, independence–at least to a certain extent before it becomes burdensome. So, before you judge, do recall the fallacy of the developing ego (above). Regardless of how noble your intent, power and status do funny things to a person.