Privilege Isn’t a Political Problem


This week, a comic strip by Toby Morris, an illustrator based from New Zealand, has popped up twice in my facebook feed. It supposedly tells the story of the tragic reality of socio-economic ‘privilege’. Clearly, it’s touching the hearts of many people who read it because it’s been liked over 6 million times. The comic, which is a GIF image too long to post here, is called ‘On a Plate: a short story about privilege‘. I invite you to take a minute to read it and then come back.

My first observation about this comic is that most of the power of its underlying argument comes from using the word ‘privilege’. Whenever this word is uttered by a person of a liberal or progressive political persuasion these days it is done so with a sneer. The author views the children of wealthy parents in the same resentful way as he probably would the children of Queen Elizabeth II or Kim Jong-un, the despotic ruler of North Korea. They do so because they ignore the clear distinction between unjust privilege and just privilege.

The many privileges afforded to Princes William and Harry, for example, are a consequence of the bloody violence and pillaging of their ancestors and of the modern institutionalised form of this violence – the state. The advantages bestowed to them by the immense wealth of their politically powerful parents came only because other people were forcibly disadvantaged; they came only at the direct expense of others. This type of privilege is the only kind that is an injustice and thus should be morally objected to.

The type of privilege afforded to the children of wealthy parents, however, cannot be morally objected to because the cause of this effect is not an unethical one. The parents of the privileged protagonist in the comic acquired their wealth through economic exchange, which is peaceful action that is mutually beneficial to all parties involved. In other words, no one was harmed in the making of their wealth. On the contrary, everyone involved was left better off – or at the very least willingly engaged in it in the belief that it would benefit them.

This is the profound ethical difference between the earned privilege of the children of wealthy parents and the unearned privilege of children of queens, tyrants or even mafia bosses. The consequence of ignoring or avoiding this distinction in one’s moral reasoning is that one ends up arguing that people should feel guilty about the guilt-less courses of action they engage in – just like the author of the comic does.

He doesn’t argue this explicitly but rather implicitly when he writes “…maybe Richard starts to believe [the author’s emphasis] he deserves to be on top. That he did it all himself.”

Clearly, the author is implying that Richard doesn’t deserve his higher, better paid (compared to Paula) position in society. And he doesn’t deserve it because his parents used the resources at their disposal to benefit him. But by this absurd criteria, no of us deserve any of the wealth or social standing we achieve because our parents kept us alive by feeding us when we were helpless infants.

By this reasoning, even Paula doesn’t deserve what little she has because her parents worked so hard and gave her what little wealth they had. Indeed, it could be argued that since Paula’s parents put so many more hours of labour into helping her that she is even less deserving than Richard!

The whole thing is confused and contradictory. If, as the author implicitly argues, Richard isn’t responsible for his own success, then it’s silly to argue that he should feel guilty because you can’t be guilty of something you aren’t responsible for. The only way to explicitly deny the premise that Richard isn’t responsible for his position (and thus argue that he isn’t deserving of what he has and thus should feel guilty) is to first implicitly accept that it is true. Which is a proposition as self-defeating as “I am not alive”.

The author ends with a nasty stereotyping of wealthy and successful people. We see Richard portrayed as an obnoxious prick who hates poor people like Paula. This is unthinking class hatred, plain and simple, which on a political scale is socially regressive and destructive. I’ve no doubt there are some wealthy people who are obnoxious pricks, but the fact remains that without the fancy functions of wealthy people, there would be no one able to pay Paula to serve oysters to them.

Ultimately, it is the wide variation in advantages and material wealth among people, which the author decries as a tragedy and a social problem, that saves Paula from the worse fate of a much lower standard of living. Without unequal distribution of wealth, without a middle class and a wealthy elite, there would be much less opportunity for Paula to improve her life and her standard of living would be lower.

It’s fine to feel sorry for the Paula’s of this world, but it’s not okay to irrationally hate or resent the Richard’s of this world. If we continue to believe that Richard’s position relative to Paula’s is ‘unfair’ and that the former is responsible for the latter’s poorer lot in life, then we will continue to advocate government action aimed at ‘equalising’ people and remedying the imagined problem of privilege. And that can only lead to everyone’s impoverishment.

We can all be made equally poor by having government further remove our economic freedoms or we can be unequally wealthy by shrinking government and expanding economic freedom. Those who would choose the former would reveal that they are more interested in harming wealthier people than they are helping poorer people.

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