I am a libertarian, and this means that I believe in capitalist economics; I believe that the rich should not be taxed at a higher rate than the poor, that government-sponsored welfare programs should be eliminated, and that government, in general, should be streamlined to support a freer market.
I often find myself debating economics theory with friends of a less capitalistic persuasion, people who believe in progressive taxation and big government. When I begin to defend my beliefs listed above, I am almost always confronted with an objection which follows this pattern: “But, Scott, you have no right to oppose government programs which help the poor, because you do not understand poverty, because you have never been poor.” The interlocutor who brings up this point then might go on to how, as a middle-class American, I have always had access to all of my necessities, and a share of luxuries also.
This line of argument is clearly a charge of elitism. It attempts to undermine my authority in an economics debate by bringing forth my provenance as someone who comes from a background of privilege.
This argument is remarkable to me for two reasons. First, it is remarkable because of its ubiquity. I cannot remember the last time that I had an economics debate with a pro-tax, pro-welfare individual where this argument was not made against me in some small way. I have heard it from political science professors, economics students, and other very well-read and incisive-minded people.
This brings me to the second remarkable feature of this argument: it is put forward by people who should know better than to do so (to wit – they are educated, they are well-intentioned, and they believe (falsely) that they are alerting me to something of which I was not previously aware.) Further, it is not (always) said for theatrical effect: it manages to make itself present in debates which are otherwise reasonable and of great intellectual substance.
Such a charge of elitism has no place in intellectual debates, nor should it be spoken by people who wish to advance a serious line of argument in the context of such a debate. In this essay, I shall explain the paucity and disrespect of such a charge made against libertarians and fiscal conservatives.
Most glaringly, this charge of elitism is an ad hominem argument. This is why it is most surprising to me that professors, graduate students, and other well-read people would condescend to make it. Had I the same level of condescension, it would be simple for me to make tens of such arguments in return. (For example, I could say; “You are a professor at a public university; your salary depends on taxes; so obviously you would support high tax rates.”) Even if this point had any intellectual weight, I think that it would be unfair to make it in the context of an academic debate. It is important to me to only debate the issues at hand and not to attack the people who are raising them, and I expect the same from other interlocutors who wish to participate in a debate which is expected to meet high standards of intellectual rigor.
As well as being an ad hominem argument, the charge of elitism is a highly disrespectful thing to inject into a debate. Here is why: because it assumes that I do not know what I am talking about. I have taken political philosophy courses, I have read John Rawls, and I understand the concept of the veil of ignorance. When I am debating these topics with a professor from a public university, I have taken the care to consider the possibility that he is only espousing pro-tax sentiments because he is a direct beneficiary of tax dollars. However, in most cases, I would immediately discount such a possibility, because I believe that a university professor has enough wits about him, and enough logical or rational ability to think with impartiality, and to not allow the source of his income to in any way influence the formulation of his political opinions.
Were I to charge that a public university professor (or student) held liberal economic beliefs because his paycheck (or his subsidized education) came as a result of taxpayer expenditure, it would be right for that professor (or student) to feel belittled or angry at my having made such a charge. This anger and this belittlement are the same ones that I feel whenever someone (especially, someone whose opinions and thoughts I otherwise give great credence to) thoughtlessly charges me with elitism.
To charge me with elitism because I am not poor represents a failure to understand my basic intellectual ability to think laterally. First, a word about my lifestyle. I do not deny (nor do I feel ashamed) that I was raised in middle-class America, and that as a child I did not want for any of my basic needs. At some times in my life, I have felt very well-provided-for, and at others I have not felt so. At the current time of writing, I find myself living on a small trickle of money, and having to make certain sacrifices commensurate to that experience.
But none of this matters much. As someone who understands Rawls’ veil of ignorance and prides himself on his ability to think impartially and with minimal bias, I state this: I believe that were I to wake up tomorrow and find myself a lottery-winner, living in a giant mansion and with great material wealth, or were I to wake up and find myself suddenly transplanted to a foreign nation and in a condition of great material poverty, neither condition would change my economic understandings.
A subjacent accusation to the charge of elitism is the charge that the accused middle-class libertarian “elitist” does not know what poverty is. (Ironically, this charge is often put to me by people whose lives consist of jumping from the middle-class households of their parents to university classrooms, and then on to middle-class professorships or jobs.) Perhaps it would be true that I don’t know what poverty is if I lived a life where I was ignorant of the topic of poverty, where I did not interact with the poor, and where I was constantly and perpetually provided with every material need. But this does not describe me. I have lived in various conditions and received various incomes. Beyond this, I have had friends who were homeless or income-less, I have studied poverty and homelessness, I have given to the needy and I have been given to when I was needy. To live in this society and be ignorant of the issues of poverty is narrowly possible, but that does not describe me, and I will not be dogmatically charged with such rubbish accusations as that.
(I ask parenthetically: how poor would I have to have been (and how much of my background would my accuser need to know of) in order for me to have ducked the charge of elitism? Need I go and live in a developing nation for an extended period of time before I am cleared of my alleged middle-class biases? Need I starve and waste?)
I know of many libertarians and fiscal conservatives of whom this is not true: people who supported populist or progressive economics only until they themselves hit it big and then, rather suddenly, when they were being taxed at high rates, realized that taxation is not such a fine thing. I am not so unprincipled and two-faced as these people, and I resent the unfounded implication that I am.
I now turn to my accuser and ask him: what do you, sir or madam, know of pride? Maybe I could be better-acquainted with poverty on the phenomenological level, but were I that, I assure you that I would disdain Robin Hood-like attempts to feed me from the ill-attained coffers of the rich. Were I poor, I would refuse government assistance and I would champion the free market, because I would even then continue to believe that it is through the mechanism of free commerce that I can rise out of poverty. If I become rich or if I become poor, or if I remain a member of the middle class, there are a series of principles to which I will stick, and to fail to understand that is true intellectual poverty.