07/08/2013 10:24 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Right-wing Myths About Merit, Money and Morality


When it comes to wealth, you get what you deserve. If you're rich, you've earned it. Same goes for the poor. Middle class too.

Do you believe these statements to be true most or all of the time? If so, you're probably on the rightward side of the American political spectrum. And if that's the case, welcome, because I'm going to argue that such statements are flat-out wrong more often than conservative ideologues and politicians care to admit. They can't admit it because their entire philosophy on socio-economic policy rests on these myths being truths.

Conservative policy in this arena centers on the following, interconnected axioms:

1) with very few exceptions, wealth is totally earned and deserved.

2) social programs unfairly confiscate and redistribute wealth from those who have earned it to those who have not, from the "worthy" to the "unworthy."

3) the unworthy recipients of such largesse are then trapped in what Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) referred to as a "culture of dependency," i.e., they'd be better off if they were allowed/forced to survive on their own.

4) as Fox News analyst Andrew Napolitano wrote -- "Taxation is theft."

On taxes and wealth, conservatives ignore (or pretend to) the fact that the current distribution of wealth -- one that sees greater inequality and a higher concentration of wealth at the very top than at any time since just before the Great Depression -- is not a "natural" occurrence, it's not simply the result of merit alone.

Since 1980, when the Reagan Revolution washed ashore, our elected officials have chosen to alter the tax code in ways that have greatly exacerbated income inequality, as a recent Economic Policy Institute study makes clear. Changes to our labor laws, trade policy, and the failure to ensure that the minimum wage keeps up with inflation haven't helped either, the study explains. So-called "redistributive" government programs -- which most Americans support, polling shows -- are no more or less "natural" than an economic system that funnels wealth upward.

The thing is, conservatives claim to be moral. They certainly can't go around saying only that they want rich people to keep all their money. They have to have some kind of moral basis for their class warfare. That's where the myths come in. If one's economic lot in life is based solely on merit and people at the bottom deserve to be there, then it really is immoral -- not to mention counterproductive -- to have government programs that address poverty and inequality in all but the most cursory way. Otherwise, those at the bottom -- who have poor values anyway--will just live in the lap of their government-provided luxury. The poor just have it too easy, in this thinking.

Of course, pushing that thought to its logical conclusion would also make private charity for the poor counterproductive as well, even if not as offensive to the right wing as are government programs due to charity's voluntary nature. But I think Jesus might have had something to say on that topic, and I know many conservatives do take him seriously. Frankly, on matters of wealth and poverty, so do many progressives, myself included.

But enough rehashing conservative myths. Instead, let's puncture them. We'll start with the one that the rich deserve to be rich because they've earned it. A recent report from the National Academy of Sciences found the following:

Seven studies using experimental and naturalistic methods reveal that upper-class individuals behave more unethically than lower-class individuals. In studies 1 and 2, upper-class individuals were more likely to break the law while driving, relative to lower-class individuals. In follow-up laboratory studies, upper-class individuals were more likely to exhibit unethical decision-making tendencies (study 3), take valued goods from others (study 4), lie in a negotiation (study 5), cheat to increase their chances of winning a prize (study 6), and endorse unethical behavior at work (study 7) than were lower-class individuals. Mediator and moderator data demonstrated that upper-class individuals' unethical tendencies are accounted for, in part, by their more favorable attitudes toward greed.

Of course, anyone who saw the movie, Trading Places, knows this story all too well. Randolph and Mortimer Duke, two fat cat brothers who got rich trading commodities, set out to determine if criminality and immoral behavior are a function of poverty or a matter of character and "breeding." Nature or nurture.

In the end, the multimillionaire Dukes are revealed as the real criminals, having cooked up a scheme to defraud their fellow investors by stealing -- via a hired underling -- inside information in order to buy commodities (frozen concentrated orange juice, to be specific) for less than they will be worth when the secret information becomes public. Given that the Dukes are in their 70's, it's at least implied that this is not the first time they've broken the law to enrich themselves. Thus, the film shows that criminality and immoral behavior are simply what people do in order to get exceedingly rich. Or, as Balzac is said to have uttered: "Behind every great fortune is a great crime."

That's just a movie, of course. But real scholarly research also punctures the right-wing myths about merit, money and morality. Now in its second edition, The Meritocracy Myth by Stephen McNamee and Robert Miller details all the ways that these myths do not hold up to serious analysis.

The authors summarized their findings as follows:

"First, we suggest that while merit does indeed affect who ends up with what, the impact of merit on economic outcomes is vastly overestimated by the ideology of the American Dream. Second, we identify a variety of nonmerit factors that suppress, neutralize, or even negate the effects of merit and create barriers to individual mobility."

Again, as the authors make clear, they recognize that merit is certainly one factor in the acquisition of wealth in many cases. But there are numerous other factors that affect who has what, including (but not limited to): direct inheritance, the educational opportunities provided by family wealth, connections (again, also linked to family wealth), discrimination (both present-day and the lasting effects of past discrimination), and sometimes just plain luck.

McNamee and Miller debunk the belief that "people are poor because of deviant or pathological values that are then passed on from one generation to the next," the myth that their behavior alone is what keeps poor people poor. In fact, research shows that "poor people appear to value work, family, school, and achievement as much as other Americans. Instead of having 'deviant' or 'pathological' values, the evidence suggests that poor people adjust their ambitions and outlooks according to realistic assessments of their more limited life chances."

In other words, being born poor is the primary cause of poverty among adults because being born poor means one will receive fewer opportunities and will have fewer resources with which to develop his or her full potential.

Now let's talk about the middle class and the working class, because the right-wing myths target them as well. If such people really wanted to be rich, they could do it. They'd just have to work hard enough. They've got to want it. Bad.

In reality, they're already working hard, some of them at a minimum wage that leaves them in poverty even after a 40-hour work week. And some work two or even three jobs, yet aren't rich. Is it really possible that a hedge fund manager's work is "worth" hundreds of times that of a teacher or a sanitation worker?

The right wing wants to portray workers, especially if they are union workers, as lazy shirkers who stand together to make sure none of them are ever held accountable as individuals. And if they should ever do something so arrogant as to demand, say, a fair wage or better work conditions -- like the striking BART workers this past week -- well, then, that's just more evidence of how, according to the right wing, our society cannot allow itself to be held hostage by those who can't make it on their own merits.

Conservatives want to break the union(s) so that all of us become "free" to rise and fall on our own merits, and each individual worker becomes free to demonstrate his or her skills from among the thousands of other employees, and in doing so will surely be rewarded. Employers always treat their employees fairly, they'd never abuse one who is vulnerable. Right?

According to the right wing, you're either a maker or a taker. A winner or a loser. Simple. Easy. Black and white, with no shades of gray. Need help? Then, by definition, you don't deserve it.

Now, as progressives, we believe something very different. We believe that we are a community, or as President Obama has so often called us: "one American family." We recognize that it is not only moral to spend government money to provide food to people who couldn't otherwise afford to eat, we know that it actually pays off in the long run by saving the government money. But even if it didn't pay off, it would still be a moral imperative to do so. That's important to say.

Philosophically, we recognize that one of the primary goals of government ought to be ensuring that all children and adults have the opportunity to make the most of their talents. Having people who can afford it contribute a decent share of their wealth to ensure that that happens isn't confiscation or theft, it's how we achieve that goal. It's how we act on our morality.

We don't believe that 47 percent of the people are losers or takers. We believe they are our fellow Americans.