A few days ago, the great Paul Sagar noted an asymmetry in the Tory attitude to "fairness" - that whereas they are keen to point to the "undeserving poor", they are silent about the undeserving rich.
I was reminded of this by listening to Nick Clegg on Desert Island Discs.This provoked the question: why do the undeserving rich not recognise their undeservingness?
Clegg said (I'm writing from memory here, so the quote might not be exactly right) that "I was very lucky to go to a great school." This is a mix of self-awareness and self-deception. Self-awareness in that "very lucky" remark. And self-deception in failing to see that the distinguishing feature of Westminster School is that it is great but that it is expensive: £29,406 is more than most workers earn in a year (pdf).
What's going on here? One thing, I suspect is normalization. Most people (I think I'm unusual in this respect) are surrounded most of their lives by people like themselves so they fail to see that they are unusual. Clegg can no more see his privilege than fish can see that water is wet.
Another thing is that many of those born into privilege have forms of self-deception that prevent them seeing that they don't deserve their fortune.
The general phenomenon here is simply illusory superiority. Everyone likes to think they are better than average, and it is always easy to believe in things it is comfortable to believe. Self-interest breeds self-deception.
Among the likes of Clegg, though, I suspect there are two specific forms this takes.
One is a belief that one can offset one's privilege by doing good works; noblesse oblige. This is not wholly unreasonable; the Tory lady doing charitable work is not entirely a mythical figure. In Clegg, however, it takes a warped form. He says he was "propelled forward [into politics] by idealism". He fails to see how convenient it is that his particular form of idealism brings with it power and money.
Secondly, there's the perception that one has merit.Toby Young writes:
The aura of privilege that surrounds the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister shouldn’t be mistaken for aristocratic hauteur. Their sense of entitlement doesn’t stem from good breeding, but from their conviction that they’re meritocrats. And in a sense they are. After all, admission to Britain’s top public schools, as well as Oxford and Cambridge, is at least partly based on merit.
This is, of course, laughable. But that's the point. Self-deception is hugely powerful.