Reflections on the Guilt Complex
JANUARY 01, 1970 by LEONARD E. READ
Anyone who has the slightest idea of how freedom works its wonders—thus having a faith in free men—cannot help but be appalled by the increasing number of affluent individuals who support welfare-state concepts and programs.
The cause often ascribed for this apostasy—this turning away from the free society by those it has raised to positions of affluence—is that the wealthy are victims of a guilt complex. They are ashamed to be more successful than their fellowmen! Personally, I believe this to be a fallacy; further, it is a mischievous explanation and we do injury to the freedom philosophy by excusing these apostates in this manner. A wealthy friend suggests a state minimum wage law so high that tourist accommodations in his area will no longer be financially feasible; he wants his beautiful countryside uncrowded and uncluttered. A statist position in order to have his little world to himself! This, for certain, is not a guilt complex.
Or, here’s a suspicion of mine: Turning to welfare statism is purely a pose assumed by many affluent persons—often unwittingly—to shield themselves from a growing number of socialistic critics. They pose as welfare statists or profess to be in business for "the social good" rather than for profit; saying, in effect, to those who covet their affluence, "See, I’m on your side and doing all in my power to bring you to my level." This is far from a guilt complex.
Now and then there may be a business mogul or an inheritor of wealth who actually believes that "from each according to ability… to each according to need" leads to social felicity. But we cannot call the advocacy of this Marxian tenet a guilt complex.
There is little point in tracing causation further. The causes are far more numerous than the number of apostates, for each of them is led down the primrose path to socialism by more reasons than anyone else can fathom or than he himself is aware of. All of these countless defections are either immaturity or a lapse of judgment—thoughtless drifts—that are as common to those who "have it made" as to those who haven’t. However, in no instance do we uncover a guilt complex.
Suppose that Success Were a Mark of Distinction
Suppose that affluence were a mark of distinction—that getting ahead of others, becoming rich through voluntary exchanges, or making big profits brought not criticism but applause, acclaim, esteem from everyone. Were this the case, would the affluent among us be apologetic for their success, that is, would they have a guilty feeling? Indeed, they would not! Instead, they would be basking in their glory.
Or, look at it this way: If some person’s guilty feelings bred an uncontrollable compassion for others—as the Bible puts it, "this man’s possessions were weighing him down"—any individual so afflicted could sell his possessions and give to the poor. Until we see such voluntary charitable behavior on the part of an affluent person, let us hear no more about a guilt complex as an explanation for his apostasy!
Sell his possessions and give to the poor! What, really, are the wealthy doing when they side with welfare-state concepts and programs? The very opposite! They are advocating that your and my possessions be expropriated and given willy-nilly, more often than not with injury to the poor. This posture may, on occasion, gain approval or silence criticism but only because so few see the sham in it. If the naked truth were apparent to all, would an affluent person so unfavorably expose himself? Of course he would not! Only professional comedians try to make a laughing stock of themselves.
Affluence Gains Publicity
Why put so much emphasis on the apostasy of the affluent? Why not equally on the apostasy of those in the middle or lower brackets?
In all frankness, this apostasy—by the rich or by the poor—may be fairly and accurately diagnosed as an utter lack of under standing, a failure to grasp the most simple and basic economic relationships of cause and effect, of human action and its consequences.
This is not to suggest that persons of affluence are either more or less prone to these lapses into medieval or primitive ways than those on the lower rungs of the economic ladder. Understanding is not advanced or retarded by the rise or fall of bank balances; there is no correlation between the two.
But an affluent person—usually well known—packs more weight than a poor person. The views of a captain of industry or finance or whatever are much publicized, whereas the views of a person who hasn’t "made it" yet may go unheard or unheeded, even by his family. The "higher-ups" make news, and to the extent that they defect from freedom principles they infect more than their fair share of fellow Americans. This is why the apostasy of the affluent merits special attention—and disapproval, not acclaim.
Fortunately, each of us has it within his own power to immunize himself against economic sophisms and fallacies. We need not be misled in economic theories and practices by a spreader of nonsense, whether he be affluent or poor.
No genius is required to see clearly that an unhampered market economy best fulfills the peaceful wants and ambitions of everyone involved. Each best serves himself by serving others, producing his own specialty, trading for theirs. To be ashamed of success under such a creative arrangement, is to be sick of mind. The market does, in fact, handsomely reward those who best serve others, and the others ought to know and welcome the result, be glad and proud of it, for their very lives depend on this.
The alternative to which men turn in their failure to understand is a coercive tyranny that condemns mankind to slow starvation. This is not really a concern for the poor; it is not a guilt complex!