David R. Henderson  

The Real Meaning of Privilege

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Once we start using the word "privilege" where what we really mean is "wealth," we start applying this term to those who came by their wealth without special privilege-the Bill Gateses of the world, sure, but also the more-common successful businessmen or professionals who are earning a few million dollars a year down to a few hundred thousand dollars a year and who don't show up on any "richest people" lists. The vast majority of people who get rich in even a semifree economy such as ours do so by producing goods and services that others value. But because the word "privilege" carries a negative connotation, when we call someone "privileged," we are communicating, even if unintentionally, that this person came by his money dishonestly. And if you think that this is not a major issue, consider what President Obama's first budget book, an official U.S. government publication, said about the highest-income people in the United States: "While middle-class families have been playing by the rules, living up to their responsibilities as neighbors and citizens, those at the commanding heights of our economy have not."

This is from my "The Real Meaning of Privilege."

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COMMENTS (12 to date)
Jeremy, Alabama writes:

Who is more "privileged"?

(1) a businessman who risks everything and makes a million?
(2) an engineer who works hard and makes $100k?
(3) a person who does nothing and receives $10k benefit?

In answering the question one identifies one's politics. But for a politician purchasing votes from (3), the first task is surely to demonize (1).

Tom Crispin writes:

Since those at the commanding heights are the political class, Obama was more right than he knew.

Randy writes:

When you break it down, what we have is a case of the truly privileged, the political class, using the word to prepare their intended targets (the productive class), for an application of political privilege (generally rent collection).

Sarah writes:

I have never genuinely thought of how negative a connotation privileged had gained over the years. Who is to say that the higher income population does not deserve what they have? I believe that the majority the United States have not dishonestly come by any grand amount of money. A business man who puts all of his money ant time on the line to further his product or his business should not be put down and look negatively upon by calling him privileged. If the business man succeeds, the stress, the work, and the gamble that is a business are all factors he dealt with that make him deserve what he has earned. The upper class pays more of a percentage of there earning in the graduated income tax than everyone else. Obama should not be targeting upper earning class of America, they are not the ones relying on the government for a check in the mail.
However if we are speaking on the corporation of the economy the heads of those are in large fault for the fall of our economy now. They did not look ahead into the future and now we all must pay for their mistakes.

Sam writes:

Fair enough, but Bill Gates is perhaps not the best example of an "unprivileged" person who became quite wealthy.

Although he didn't get a government license to print money, he's no Horatio Alger story either -- he had quite a few advantages starting out, as documented by Phil Greenspun

David R. Henderson writes:

Jeremy, Tom, Randy, and Sarah,
Good points.
Bill Gates is a great example. He started in the upper middle class or upper class and he wasn't privileged.

Dr. T writes:

"Bill Gates is a great example. He started in the upper middle class or upper class and he wasn't privileged."

Correct, he was just unethical.

Jeremy, I liked your comment. Our safety net leeches are more privileged than almost all our wealthy persons.

Amber Anderson writes:

The term "privilege" in this day and age does refer to economic class more so than it used to, that is for sure. When we Americans state that someone is "privileged", we are simply inferring that they have come into their money, financial status and such forth unfairly. This connotation and reference hinders the common person/middle class worker who honestly earns their money and makes a living for themselves. This is because the phrase no longer means "hardworking" or such, it now means "lucky duck" that in most instances did nothing to deserve their position or status. In addition, Obama's statement regarding the high-income individuals of the world simply furthermore supports my point. Those at the height of our government/enforcement/economy are not pulling their weight as a citizen as they should be and as a direct result they are affecting those "non-privileged" individuals.

Sam writes:


Perhaps your definition is too narrow. You write "when we call someone "privileged," we are communicating, even if unintentionally, that this person came by his money dishonestly". Although Microsoft is not a notable beneficiary of state-supported extortion, are you prepared to defend all their business practices as honest?

A broader understanding is "when I call someone unprivileged, I mean to communicate that this person came by his money through honest work" -- which excludes thieves, heirs, and cheaters.

Deanna writes:

By using the term "privileged" we fall into a discussion of normative economics, in which the definition of "privileged" will vary from person to person. Does the privileged class included only millionaires and business men, or do we also count all of those people with greater economic assets than ourselves? In these cases it is certainly harder to determine whether the word privileged carries with it a positive or a negative connotation. I do believe that the term has gained a much more negative connotation recently though.

I know that people want to make sure that everyone is provided for, because let’s face it, there are lots of hardworking people out there who have fallen on hard times, some of whom make up the most unfortunate proportion of the "under privileged" majority. It certainly isn't their fault if they get laid off because their place of work can no longer afford to keep them. However, it is also not the fault of the so called "privileged" individuals either. Many of them have worked just as hard for their money, if not harder, and it is unfair for their successes to be met with derision and suspicion so much of the time. Of course, in times of economic hardship it is harder to overlook the money gap and attempt to see the work that was put into the attainment of it.

Justin writes:

When we think of "privileged" people we think about the people that always get what they want even though they dont always deserve it. When we think of the middle class they are getting passed by because these "privileged" people are taking the jobs that rightfully belong to the more deserving worker. The only reason they get the job is because their dad is the president and believes that their offspring would be the best to take the job, but infact that job could go to the under-paid more qualified person.

Conner writes:

Obama’s campaign was targeting the kind of people who think that getting something for nothing is ok. I was raised to believe that if you want something in life you have to work for it. The ideology of Obama’s supporters is that you should be given things not because you are privileged but simply because you need it. If I need something I would not wait for someone to give it to me. I would do something about it and work towards getting it.
I am a college football player with a full scholarship. Many of my teammates are also on full scholarship. We can all apply for financial aid from the government and pocket the money the government sends us because our schooling is already paid for. I did not apply for financial aid because my family makes enough to where I would not receive anything. My friends who receive this money think I am privileged because I have a couple thousand dollars saved up that I have earned through work. They believe that it is only fair that they get to pocket the extra $1,000 they get from the government because my family is “rich.”
They have the same ideals that many Obama supporters have. They justify taking free government money with the fact that they don’t have much money. I see them as privileged but they see me as privileged. I have just as much personal money as they do but I worked for mine, they did nothing for theirs. I think it’s just a twisted moral issue. Something for nothing is not right. People who work for their money are not privileged. It’s the people that are actually getting free money for nothing who are privileged

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