Most Germans think poorly of millionaires. 62 percent consider them selfish, 56 percent consider them materialistic, and 50 percent consider them reckless. The reputation of wealthy people is not quite this bad everywhere. For instance, in Great Britain, the U.S., and France the rich are also considered materialistic, but above all intelligent, hardworking, and daring.
The German historian and sociologist Rainer Zitelmann has published these survey results in his latest book “The Rich in Public Opinion: What We Think When We Think about Wealth”, after having commissioned the renowned public opinion research institutes Allensbach and Ipsos Mori to conduct surveys in these four countries. He defined “rich” as persons who have assets totaling at least one million euros (or pounds or dollars) not counting their own residential property.
The study shows that people in the two Anglo-American countries think much better of the rich than do people in Germany. And the results show something else: Social envy reinforces prejudices about the rich and often leads to ideas that are critical of capitalism. In this way, these survey results confirm what the economist Ludwig von Mises wrote in “The Anti-Capitalist Mentality” more than 60 years ago.
Continental Europe is More Envious of the Rich
Social envy is particularly pronounced in the two continental European countries of Germany and France: 33 percent of Germans and 34 percent of French envy the rich for their wealth. In the U.S. this applies to only 20 percent of people and in Great Britain only 18 percent. Those surveyed were counted as envious if they affirmed at least two of the following three statements:
- “I think it would be fair to increase taxes substantially for millionaires, even if I would not benefit from it personally.”
- “I would favor drastically reducing those managers’ salaries and redistributing the money more evenly amongst their employees, even if that would mean that they [the employees] would only get a few more dollars per month.”
- “When I hear about a millionaire who made a risky business decision and lost a lot of money because of it, I think: It serves him right.”
In all four countries, envious people see the rich in a very negative light. In addition to egoism, materialism, and ruthlessness, they named arrogance, greed, coldness, and superficiality as their personality traits. The group of “non-enviers” was quite different, not affirming any of the three statements above.
Above all, the “non-enviers” consider rich people to be industrious, intelligent, daring, innovative, (but also) materialistic, and they credit them with visionary thinking.
Envy Favors a Scapegoat Mentality
In addition, envious people in all four of the studied countries tend to view the rich as scapegoats and see them as the main culprits of the financial crisis and other humanitarian crises. What prejudice research has shown in connection with other minorities is now also evident with the rich, as Zitelmann points out: “Especially in economic and financial crises, the causes of which are very complex and are not understood by most people, many tend to ascribe responsibility for them to scapegoats (‘greedy bankers’, the ‘super rich’, etc.).”
The “scapegoaters” tend to see the economy as a zero-sum game in which the rich get rich at the expense of the poor. “The more the rich have, the less there is left for the poor.” The majority of “scapegoaters” in all four countries agreed with this sentence (between 58 and 69 percent). It is also striking that this group also has a generally more difficult relationship with the Jewish people. That one must be careful with critical statements about Jews in public is said by 70, 60, 63 and 49 percent of the “scapegoaters” in Germany, France, Great Britain and the U.S., respectively. Among those who are not inclined to scapegoat, the percentage is 13, 7, 18 and 9 percentage points lower.
Mises: Capitalism Provokes Social Envy
Ludwig von Mises already drew attention to social envy as the root of both the scapegoat mentality and anti-capitalism, the latter of which sees capitalism primarily as an unjust order at the expense of the more impoverished. He spoke of the “resentment of frustrated ambition,” which capitalism in particular provokes: “What makes many feel unhappy under capitalism is the fact that capitalism grants to each the opportunity to attain the most desirable positions which, of course, can only be attained by a few.” This means that “everyone’s station in life depends on his own doing.” If, as a member of such a society, one does not fully satisfy one’s own ambitions, one “resents the fortune of all those who succeeded better.”
It was different in earlier times: Peasants, craftsmen, or slaves could not become dukes or barons and therefore did not feel obliged to justify themselves. In capitalism, on the other hand, everyone is constantly aware of how successful other people can be in comparison to themselves. “There are fellows who have outstripped him and against whom he nurtures, in his subconsciousness, inferiority complexes. Such is the attitude of the tramp against the man with a regular job, the factory hand against the foreman, the executive against the vice-president, the vice-president against the company’s president, the man who is worth three hundred thousand dollars against the millionaire and so on.”
Overcoming Envy through Debasement
Mises astutely describes the compensation strategies for overcoming feelings of social envy:
“In order to console himself and to restore his self-assertion, such a man is in search of a scapegoat. He tries to persuade himself that he failed through no fault of his own. He is at least as brilliant, efficient and industrious as those who outshine him. Unfortunately this nefarious social order of ours does not accord the prizes to the most meritorious men; it crowns the dishonest unscrupulous scoundrel, the swindler, the exploiter, the ‘rugged individualist’.”
Intellectuals “sublimate their hatred into a philosophy, the philosophy of anti-capitalism, in order to render inaudible the inner voice that tells them that their failure is entirely their own fault.” They begin to dream of a “fair” world in which they themselves would be treated according to their “real value.” Mises calls such dreams “the refuge of all those plagued by a lack of self-knowledge.”
The stereotypes that the rich are cold, have a bad family life or have generally unsatisfactory interpersonal relationships, are selfish and have poorer morals, all serve to promote one's own superiority.
Research in the field of psychology confirms the account of Ludwig von Mises: “Social Comparison research shows that we constantly—consciously or unconsciously—compare ourselves with other people in order to obtain information for our self-assessment,” reports Rainer Zitelmann. Envy arises when another person has qualities, goods or positions that one would like to have oneself. One way to reduce envy is to highlight one’s own merits that are on a different order of comparison. The compensation strategies of social groups that others experience as economically more successful are based in a preference for moral criteria: “The stereotypes that the rich are cold, have a bad family life or have generally unsatisfactory interpersonal relationships, are selfish and have poorer morals, all serve to promote one’s own superiority.” In contrast to the possession of money or education, such criteria are difficult to objectify. The field of activity of the rich, or the system as a whole, is also difficult to talk about. That is why zero-sum thinking, according to which under capitalism the rich enrich themselves at the expense of the poor, helps to reduce feelings of envy towards more successful people.
Germans Are Inclined to a Scapegoat Mentality
Scapegoating and zero-sum gamekeeping are very pronounced in Germany—and here especially in Eastern Germany. Just over half of the Germans agree with the statement: “Many rich people have only come to prosperity because they have enriched themselves at the expense of others.” Meanwhile, 48 percent affirm the following statement: “The rich could only become so rich because our society is unjust.” In Germany’s new federal states, one in two persons even thinks that the wealthy only come to their wealth due to societal injustice; in West Germany, only one in three thinks so.
The habit of making the rich the scapegoat for all the world’s problems is more pronounced in Germany than in France or the Anglo-American countries. Half of the German respondents agree with the statement: “Super-rich people who want more and more power are to blame for many problems in the world, e.g. financial crises and humanitarian crises.” Even in France, only one in three individuals shares this assessment, in the U.S., one in four, and in Great Britain only one in five. It “suggests that the aggressions against the rich and the willingness of politicians to take action against them could be mobilized more easily in an acute economic or financial crisis in Germany than in the Anglo-Saxon countries,” says Zitelmann.
Certain wealthy groups are more likely to be accorded their wealth in Germany. Thus, Germans—as well as the French, English, and Americans—are fine with the wealth of entrepreneurs and the self-employed, as well as artists, top athletes and lottery winners (the latter especially in East Germany). Financial investors, on the other hand, whose wealth is also respected by Americans and British, are in the next to bottom place in the ranking in Germany and are also far down the list in France.
Little Contact with the Rich Fosters Prejudice
Overall, the attitude towards the rich in the U.S. and Great Britain is much more positive than in France and Germany. The French have an ambivalent attitude: unlike in Germany, they associate the rich with positive qualities such as hard work and intelligence, but at the same time they envy them even more for their success. Demands for redistribution and tax increases for the wealthy are even more popular in France than in Germany. On the other hand, among Germans there is a more pronounced number who experience schadenfreude over a millionaire’s great losses in a risky business venture than among French, British, and Americans.
One thing that stands out in the study is the positive attitude towards millionaires that one knows personally. In complete contrast to the negative attributes that Germans generally ascribe to the rich, those who know one or more millionaires personally think that they are above all hard-working and intelligent (71 percent each), innovative (58 percent), optimistic (47 percent), and visionary (45 percent).
In those countries with a particularly positive view of the rich, the proportion of millionaires in the population is also higher. In the United States and the United Kingdom, this figure is 13.5 and 12.2 per thousand respectively, whereas in Germany and France it is only 9.4 and 4.3 per thousand respectively. Personal contact with millionaires is correspondingly higher in the Anglo-American world: 43 percent of Americans, 38 percent of British, but only 18 percent of French and 17 percent of Germans say they know one or more millionaires well.
Surprising Results among Migrants and Young People
On some points, the responses of Germans with a migrant background differ from the German national average. Almost twice as many Germans from immigrant families say that there is at least one millionaire in their circle of acquaintances. The proportion of those “who declare that they know several millionaires is, at 19 percent, almost three times as high as among the interviewees without a migrant background.” The apparently more extensive network of migrants also has an impact on attitudes towards wealthy people. Germans with a migrant background tend to be fine with the wealth of millionaires who have become successful by their own efforts. They also have less aversion to top managers, real estate and financial investors, and bankers. In some cases, they accord these professional groups twice as much success as would the indigenous population. Zitelmann suspects that the use of other media could also play a role here. Moreover, 28 percent of Germans with a migration background think that entrepreneurs should be the ones to determine the salaries of managers and that the state should stay out of it. Only 19 percent of Germans without a migrant background share this view.
In all three European countries, young people between the ages of 16 and 29 see rich people more positively than do older people—in the U.S. it is the exact opposite.
Something surprising also emerges with regard to young people, especially when comparing the ratio of young to old in Europe with that in the U.S. In all three European countries, young people between the ages of 16 and 29 see rich people more positively than do older people—in the U.S. it is the exact opposite. 40 percent of young Americans think that millionaires are good at making money, but not decent people. Only 15 percent (!) of Americans over-60 have this attitude. No other group of people in all four countries has rejected this view as firmly as the over-60 generation in the U.S. By contrast, In Germany, France, and Great Britain only 31, 17 and 20 percent of those under 30 consider millionaires immoral—in all three cases a significantly lower figure than in the same generation in the U.S.
On other issues, too, European youth tend to have a more positive attitude towards the rich. For example, around 52 percent of Germans under 30 see rich people “who have made it on their own” as motivational role models; in the U.S. the figure is only 42 percent (compared with 55 percent for the 60 plus generation). We can only hope that Europe will be able to offer prospects for success to a youth striving for it, so that this generation will also seek its fortune in Europe.
A Distorted Picture in Both Quality and Popular Media
Rainer Zitelmann also investigated the question concerning the image the media portrays of rich people, and he commissioned the media agency MTC to evaluate the coverage in representative German media. Remarkably, in leading regional and supra-regional German daily and weekly newspapers like FAZ, Süddeutsche Zeitung, and Spiegel, criticism of manager salaries and high severance payments after failure in their job is especially frequent. In addition, especially since 2008, the image of the “greedy banker,” who triggered the financial crisis with his hunt for bonuses, has frequently appeared. Zitelmann is not sparing with criticism: “Where the diagnosis is wrong, the therapy will usually remain ineffective—that is where the real danger lies.” It is therefore no coincidence that bankers and top managers in Germany tend not to be accorded high salaries.
A highly controversial report by the Oxfam organization, according to which social inequality is higher than previously known and about how there are eight men richer than half the world, also received wide media coverage. “The quality of the Oxfam report, however, is in inverse proportion to the attention the organization is attracting with it,” notes Zitelmann. In 2014, the French economist Thomas Piketty also attracted great media interest with his worldwide bestseller Capital in the Twenty-First Century, according to which the increase in inequality is an essential part of capitalism. Here, too, Zitelmann does not hold back his opinion: “The data basis of his book and serious methodological errors in his approach have meanwhile been extensively criticized, such that he had to withdraw central theses. However, criticism from the scientific community did not detract from the success of the book, because it was seen as the most important proof of the thesis of the widening gap between rich and poor and as a groundbreaking contribution to modern criticism of capitalism.” Several large, partly euphoric articles in the “Süddeutsche Zeitung” were dedicated to this work.
Meanwhile, in the sensation-seeking Yellow Press a world of luxury, jealousy, celebrity, and glamour emerges, which hardly contributes to a realistic view of the rich. According to Zitelmann, “the Yellow Press at best paints a realistic picture of certain sub-groups of the rich, which—due to a lack of personal experience—is probably generalized by readers for ‘the rich’ as a whole, because rich people who do not attach importance to excessive consumption and celebrity, nor have financial problems or marital problems, are hardly shown.”
There is a lot of money to be made by criticizing the rich and scolding capitalism.
Finally, an in-house team analyzed the most successful Hollywood films of the past 28 years. A mixture of coldness and competence usually characterizes the rich in these films. Most of the time they are arrogant, unlikable, and selfish, and sometimes even walk over dead bodies. At the same time, they are also portrayed as competent, innovative, and visionary. Wealthy individuals often undergo reformation throughout these films.
It is not surprising that films and media critical of capitalism are sometimes extremely successful: where prejudices about “rich capitalists” are very widespread there is also a great demand for such products. Paradoxically, certain critics of capitalism profit from the free market. For example, the U.S. journalist and filmmaker Michael Moore (Capitalism: A Love Story) has become a multimillionaire. There is a lot of money to be made by criticizing the rich and scolding capitalism. Criticism of capitalism pays off. One can especially get rich from it in a capitalist system.
Note: This is a translation by Thomas and Kira Howes of the German original Die Reichen – eine unbekannte und verhasste Minderheit. The quotes from Zitelmann’s book are translations of the original German edition of that book.