Inequality of respect is probably at least as old as material inequality. As Adam Smith wrote:
We frequently see the respectful attentions of the world more strongly directed towards the rich and the great, than towards the wise and the virtuous. We see frequently the vices and follies of the powerful much less despised than the poverty and weakness of the innocent…The great mob of mankind are the admirers and worshippers, and, what may seem more extraordinary, most frequently the disinterested admirers and worshippers, of wealth and greatness. (Theory of Moral Sentiments I.III.29)
Pretty much the entire media business vindicates Smith’s point.
There are at least two powerful reasons why material inequality breeds inequality of respect.
One is that if you regard poverty as due to a moral failure – laziness or fecklessness – then you will of course disrespect the poor as being morally inferior; Bryan Caplan is at least honest on this point.
The other is that managerialist capitalism is a form of totalitarianism. It recognizes and respects only one form of success – the accumulation of what Alasdair MacIntyre called the “external goods” of wealth, celebrity and power. If you regard life as a race in which the winner is the guy who dies with the most goods, you’ll regard the rest as “losers”.
In this context, Noah is absolutely right. Words “need to be backed up with beliefs”: otherwise, talk of respect is like the patronizing drivel of HRwankers. In particular, we need beliefs to change in two ways.
First, we must recognize that differences in wealth are due very largely to luck: to being born in the right place at the right time to a decent family; finding inspiring teachers or mentors; having a decent genetic inheritance; getting a lucky break at work; and so on. As the world’s greatest singer put it:
I traveled to a prison; I saw my share of shattered dreams.
Were the tables slightly tilted I could be bound, they could be free.
Once we recognise the importance of luck – and many people don’t even when it is glaringly obvious – we should no more defer to the rich than we should to lottery winners.
Secondly, we should recognise that there are many virtues – that getting up every day at 5am to clean an office requires as much, if different, merit as more remunerative work does. Humble diligence is more admirable than the egomaniacal pursuit of wealth and power. This requires a greater acknowledgement of value pluralism than modern capitalism offers.
Now, you might think here that, as a Marxist, I’d stress that a belief system that generates equality of respect requires a material base, of greater material equality. I’m not sure. There are many arguments for greater equality of condition, but I’m not sure that the possibility that it would generate more equality of respect is among them. Material equality could lead to all sorts of status inequalities if narcissistic egomaniacs seek to differentiate themselves through ways other than cash incomes. The campaign for greater equality is a battle that must be fought on several fronts.