The politics of envy

Singer James BluntThere are some industries that it’s very hard to get a job in. Film-making, advertising, the music business, all the glamorous stuff. It’s pretty obvious that rich people find it much easier to get a start in these jobs because their parents will subsidise them while they do internships or hang around in Fulham waiting for their big break. However, when the new shadow culture minister said that there should be more opportunities for poor people he was immediately attacked by public schoolboy James Blunt for being a classist gimp.

Anyone who has complained publicly about the misbehaviour or greed of rich people will sooner or later find himself accused of indulging in The Politics of Envy. It’s a painful accusation to bear, implying moral hypocrisy and a kind of joyless puritanism – You would do just the same if you could, you just won’t admit it. Like any effective lie must do, it also contains a tiny grain of truth, after all who wouldn’t want to be richer?

Psychologists like Timothy Judge and Paul Piff, who have published studies into the way that being rich affects people’s behaviour, have shown correlations between wealth and disagreeable attitudes: Insensitivity, ruthlessness, even selfish driving. These characteristics are likely to make rich people behave anti-socially.

When people express moral outrage at the behaviour of the rich and powerful it is the same outrage that they would express at any other anti-social behaviour. Dropping litter, mugging grannies, drink driving, tax evasion. We don’t get annoyed about these things because we wish we could do them, it’s because we think other people shouldn’t do them. In fact, we feel that when someone acts anti-socially they are actually doing harm to us, personally.

It would be better if James Blunt acknowledged his good fortune and did something to support people who haven’t been as lucky as him. It’s no surprise that he holds up the US as a marvellous example of how he’d like to be treated. It is indeed a lovely country to be rich in, and a terrible place to be poor.

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