I complained yesterday about the non-Marxist left's tendency to commit the fundamental attribution error - the habit of over-emphasizing individuals' traits and under-emphasizing situational forces. We saw another example of this habit at the weekend, when Crystal Palace fans reacted to Wayne Rooney's new £300,000 per week contract with chants of "you fat greedy bastard."
Sadly, Mr Rooney did not respond in the manner of one of his celebrated predecessors. But he should have, because the chant is wrong. Mr Rooney is not getting £300,000 a week because he is unusually greedy: in the improbable event of being offered such money, who among us would turn it down? He is getting it because he is unusually powerful - a power which is not entirely due merely to his exceptional skill.
Palace fans, then, are committing the fundamental attribution error - they are blaming Rooney's salary upon his personal character rather than upon his situation.
Although Palace fans are - with the odd exception - not famous for their powers of thought, this error is a common one: "greedy bankers" is a cliche, "overly powerful bankers", whilst true, is not.
It is also a pernicious error. It functions to moralize inequality; the rich are rich because they are greedy whilst the poor are poor because they are lazy.
What this effaces is the fact that inequalities in capitalism* are instead the result of inequalities of power - a power which rests in part upon ideology. Moralizing inequality tends to blind us to this fact. It creates the illusion that capitalism would be acceptable if only those at the top were better people, when in fact the faults in capitalism are structural and not due to the flaws of passing individuals.
Granted, there might well be differences in character between rich and poor. But these might be not the cause of inequality, but the result of it. As someone once wrote:
The difference of natural talents in different men is, in reality, much less than we are aware of; and the very different genius which appears to distinguish men of different professions, when grown up to maturity, is not upon many occasions so much the cause, as the effect of the division of labour. The difference between the most dissimilar characters, between a philosopher and a common street porter, for example, seems to arise not so much from nature, as from habit, custom, and education. When they came into the world, and for the first six or eight years of their existence, they were perhaps, very much alike
Who said that? Adam Smith, that's who. Palace fans, and other moralizers about inequality aren't therefore merely anti-Marxist, but anti-Smithian as well.
* I mean actually-existing capitalism, not the utopia that exists only in the minds of sillier libertarians.