Epistemic status: most likely this has been discussed through and through in the academia and later in blogistan, but I decided to give it a try anyway.
I’ve noticed my acquaintances and friends have remarkably diverging attitudes towards wealth and the wealthy, and poverty and the poor.
On one hand, I have those who see the individual accumulation of wealth as a natural result of talent, effort and goodwill. These people are generally those who are born in middle class families or above, and most likely have a well-paid job or are studying in order to get one. They most likely plan to make money by investing or already have. There are some exceptions, but the general pattern is that these are people who take pride in putting effort to accumulate wealth on their own. They view the world as a game to be played, and regard the state of affairs as a result of people either knowing or not knowing how to play. Let’s call these group A.
On the other hand I have those who see the individual accumulation of wealth as a somewhat warped result of luck, unscrupulousness and socioeconomic privilege. They generally are either born in lower to middle class families, are unemployed or have a low-salary job, and possibly study humanities or some other area without a definite promise of secure, well-paid employment. These people generally take pride in being altruistic and ethical. They may view the world as a game, but a game with rules set against those who aren’t already far; like a 100m sprint with a 20m advantage for some and even more for others. If you’re hardworking and gifted enough, you might beat the odds, but make no mistake: they’re against you. These we’ll call group B.
So obviously the former group of people identify with the wealthy and tend to think of ways to explain why inequality is either a good thing or at least not a bad thing; perhaps just a natural result of biology, and therefore alright. The latter group of people identify with the poor and tend to think of ways to explain why inequality is either an evil ogre to be destroyed, or at least a bad thing resulting from blind natural laws not paying attention to human values and well-being.
Of course this dichotomy is somewhat arbitrary and most people do not fit exclusively to either of the two groups described here. I do believe, however, that such a division exists enough for us to try to model it and, of course, test that model.
By a couple of thought experiments I’ve come to think that belonging to either of these groups reflects any particular individual’s expectations of where they will themselves end up. That would explain why people from poor backgrounds might end up endorsing hard-on-poor right-wing politics, and why people from relatively wealthy families might end up as poor scholars speaking for income equality.
If a person’s attitudes towards the wealthy and poor reflect their expectations of their own place in the world, I can make some predictions out of it.
Group A people view the wealthy as their ingroup, whereas group B people view the poor as their ingroup. Therefore group A people are more likely to excuse rich people’s bad behavior, whereas group B people will likely find excuses for poor people behaving badly – and vice versa for the outgroups.
If a person talks in a manner which reflects group A attitudes (accumulating wealth is good, the poor should work harder, social welfare costs too much), they most likely either come from wealthy backgrounds, have a well-paying job or are studying law, engineering, medicine or some other high-status area of expertise. They expect to fare well in the current society and will reject politics which promise a change in the status quo. They are optimistic about the future. And conversely, these facts raise the probability that a person endorses group A beliefs.
If a person talks in a manner which reflects group B attitudes (the rich accumulate too much wealth, the game is rigged against the poor, everyone deserves the same chances, more social welfare is needed), they most likely either come from poor backgrounds, are studying an area which doesn’t promise a steady income for most, are unemployed or work a low-salary job. They don’t expect to fare well in the current society and might campaign actively for social change. They are more pessimistic about the future of the society and the world. Again, if these describe a person, they are more likely to endorse group B beliefs.
Group A people view the status quo as positive, while group B view it as negative. Therefore group A people will reject any revolution even if it resulted as a similar status quo as now, if it means that they no longer have the promise of a secure future. Meanwhile group B people will endorse such a revolution. Some examples include communism, voting for populists and the fact that most likely the socioeconomic elite reject such phenomena unless they promise at least a similar difference in living standards as exists now.
Group A people will become more like group B people if they face severe challenges and if their security networks betray them; say, if they fall seriously ill and they have no one to turn to except the state. Conversely, group B people will become more like group A people if they manage to upgrade their living standards by any means; they’ll accept the status quo as a more natural state of affairs, put less effort into changing it and more effort into holding on to their current place or upgrading it.
These predictions are a straightforward result of accepting the premise and do not require deep thought, although some complications follow from the fact that reality is rarely so black and white. Most likely there are more interesting things to be found along that train of thought, but I think the above serves as a good start for a more thorough discussion.