A brief addendum to “Responsibility”

I had a couple more thoughts to append to my post on privilege and responsibility.

1) When I say that the rich have certain responsibilities, I mean that they have certain ethical responsibilities. This is different than saying that they have certain legal responsibilities. It is the responsibility of the government to protect people from each other by (say) enforcing contracts and the like. It is not the responsibility of the government to require that the rich be charitable. Confiscatory taxation to fund social programs is totally contrary to what I’m talking about.

2) When I say that the rich have certain responsibilities, I’m generally talking about anyone who can read this blog. Is this a generalization? You betcha. However, I’ve noticed that people have a tendency to avoid calling themselves rich.

Here’s an example. For the last couple of years, my GenCon demo for Dirty Secrets has featured various members of the independent roleplaying community, who have graciously agreed to appear in my demo. As a result, I’ve asked several people to “stat” themselves out in Dirty Secrets terms. This means writing down your age, sex, race, social class, and legal status, each chosen from a specific list. The options for “social class” are simply rich, middle class, and poor. Most people were very uncomfortable identifying their social class, even though they generally settled on “middle class”. And, to be fair, it’s an awkward question. How do you go about answering that one? I mean, what social class are you?

But when these discussions come up, it’s often human nature to push ourselves toward the median. I mean, I’m not living in a house with a dirt floor, but I’m not in a mansion, you know? So I must not be poor or rich, right?

Of course, these categories aren’t tight; rather, they form a spectrum that shifts from “dirt poor” to “poor” to “working class” to “middle class” to “upper middle class” to “rich” to “filthy rich” to “Vanderbilt”. And that’s not really a fair spectrum either.

So, when considering these issues, don’t think about the “poor”. Think about “those who are poorer than me”. Specifically, think about “my neighbors who are poorer than me”. Because, as G.K. Chesterton pointed out, Jesus didn’t say, “Love humanity”. He said, “Love your neighbor.”


7 responses to “A brief addendum to “Responsibility”

  • Rob Donoghue

    Thing is, middle class is a pretty good answer, since these days it covers everything form about $40k a year to $250k. The sheer number of problems that have emerged from the scope of this spread (biggest it’s ever been, and really just getting bigger) is awe inspiring. David Brooks’ “Bobos in Paradise” is a fantastic treatment of this, as much as Brooks kind of annoys me.

    All of which is to say, it’s not just some knee-jerk denial or blind spot that keeps people from viewing themselves as rich. Over and above the tendency to view ourselves as the norm, there’s a large problem that this is simply an expression of.

    None of which undercuts the core idea that there are usually people with less than you, but I just want to point out it’s far from unreasonable to not perceive ourselves as rich, even though we may be by some yardsticks.

    -Rob D.

    PS – This also ignores Income vs Wealth and all that other Millionaire Next Door stuff, but I suspect that’s unnecessary complication.

    • Seth Ben-Ezra

      Hey, Rob. Welcome to the blog!

      “All of which is to say, it’s not just some knee-jerk denial or blind spot that keeps people from viewing themselves as rich. Over and above the tendency to view ourselves as the norm, there’s a large problem that this is simply an expression of.”

      Oh sure. I totally agree with this. Sorry if that wasn’t clearer in the post.

      I’ve struggled to answer that question myself. As I mentioned in a previous post, my family was on food stamps for a while. At the same time, we owned a computer and had Internet access. (Dial-up, to be sure, but it was access.) So, were we poor? I mean, we never starved, right?

      So, I don’t want to downplay the fact that this is a hard question to answer. I do want to emphasize that we don’t have to attain some (difficult-to-determine) “rich” status before you have this responsibility that I’m talking about.

      Oh, Income vs. Wealth? That’s a tricky one, too, but it definitely applies.

  • Rob Donoghue

    This is, I note, how I end up dodging the whole ‘privilege’ issue on a day to day basis. To me it’s all about capacity. We all have some capacity (resources, free time, knowledge, wisdom, whatever) and we can judge ourselves by how we use that. Wealth/authority/status/privilege is certainly one engine for capacity, but it’s not the only one. If you have time, you can give time. If you have knowledge, you can teach. You do the best you can with what you have, whatever “what you have” may actually be.

    I also view this as a little more optimistic. Improving yourself tends to improve your capacity, but that improvement need not be financial. Sure, it is often hard, sometimes impossible, but as yardsticks go it’s one that keeps me pretty happy.

    -Rob D.

  • Josh Roby

    It is the responsibility of the government to protect people from each other by (say) enforcing contracts and the like. It is not the responsibility of the government to require that the rich be charitable. Confiscatory taxation to fund social programs is totally contrary to what I’m talking about.

    Total can of worms, but I gotta ask: why not? Why can’t government function as a means for the more-capable to assist the less-capable?

  • Seth Ben-Ezra

    Rob,

    Yes to all that as well.

    Josh,

    Short, punchy answer: The government is organized force; therefore, its actions are coercive. Instead, I am envisioning the actions of free men freely offering charity to each other.

    Yes, this is somewhat utopian. However, my Christianity compels me both to state that this is the model and that it will be attained as Jesus changes the hearts of the people.

    Huh. Apparently for me, “short”=two paragraphs. I’ll have to keep that in mind. 😀

  • Lance D. Allen

    Short comment before going to bed, with the disclaimer that I haven’t read all the replies.

    Poor has been well (and overly) defined by Mr. Scalzi on his blog.

    Rich means never *having* to worry about being able to pay for the basics of life. I’m sure rich people worry about money just like the rest of us, but food, shelter, security and some level of personal enrichment are always within their grasp.

    Middle class is everyone else. You’ve always got food, but sometimes you wonder if you will next time. The basic necessities of modern life, transportation to work, clothing that meets a dress code, etc. are all things you can count on… Mostly.

    Me? As a military member, I’ve always got options. My family never has to go unfed. We’ve got full medical and dental coverage. If I’m not rich, I’m close. We stress about money regularly, but we don’t worry about whether we can pay rent, pay for groceries, or whether I’ll have a job next month. We worry about car payments and luxury bills (like internet and cable TV).

  • Seth Ben-Ezra

    Lance,

    On first blush, those seem like fair definitions.

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