Upon disembarking a government plane in Kentucky this week, Louise Linton, a profoundly wealthy actress and newlywed wife of Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, posted on Instagram a list of her designer clothing for the occasion, which by one estimate cost no less than $13,775. Reader Jenni Miller commented under the photograph, “Glad we could pay for your little getaway. #deplorable.” Linton retorted:
Have you given more to the economy than me and my husband? . . . I’m pretty sure we paid more taxes toward our day ‘trip’ than you did. Pretty sure the amount we sacrifice per year is a lot more than you’d be willing to sacrifice if the choice was yours. You’re adorably out of touch.
She was immediately scolded for these remarks and before the end of the day had submitted an apology. Miller told a New York Times reporter, “If she hadn’t made her account private, I would have written back with a very snide Marie Antoinette joke.” She wasn’t the only one; observers at outlets ranging from Vanity Fair to HuffPost commented on Linton’s “let them eat cake” tone.
Of course, historians will remind anyone willing to listen that it was not Marie Antoinette who uttered these words. The phrase’s first appearance in literature precedes her in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “Confessions,” where he claims to recall a “great Princess” who responded to the poor’s calls for bread with, “Let them eat cake.” But even if the queen did not utter this phrase, she did enjoy lavish royal feasts while citizens starved. For this reason, Marie Antoinette will never be disentangled from these words.
But what so offends people about “Let them eat cake”?
Strictly speaking, Linton is surely correct in asserting that she and her husband have paid a great deal more in absolute tax dollars than her Instagram critics. She cannot be disliked for dishonesty. So what exactly is the nature of her offense?
Perhaps we can learn the answer from the coiner of the phrase “Let them eat cake”: Rousseau. Rousseau was neither born into wealth nor did he marry into it. He was orphaned, deprived of a formal education and lacked a steady income throughout his life. Meanwhile, he was surrounded by the rich and powerful, and became a diligent student of what one might call the moral psychology of the wealthy.
According to Rousseau, the drive to become rich is born from self-love (amour propre), a desire to set oneself above others and receive the associated public applause. In his “Discourse on the Origins of Inequality,” he argues that wealth fosters “the passionate desire to raise his relative fortune, less from a real need than to set oneself above others.”
What might this suggest about Linton? She is perfectly aware that her wealth puts her comfortably in the top 0.01 percent of Americans as ranked by bank accounts. But following Rousseau’s psychology, knowing that privately isn’t enough. There is no such thing as private satisfaction of amour propre. She can only enjoy her wealth if it is publicly announced.
The offense isn’t wealth, but the need to flaunt it — and feel superior to the poor.
That need to flaunt wealth and invite envy fosters the underlying malice in statements such as “Let them eat cake,” Rousseau observes. Amour propre “inspires in all men a dark tendency to inflict injuries on each other, a secret jealousy all the more dangerous because, in order to strike its blow in greater safety, it often assumes a mask of goodwill.”
Perhaps Linton thought her comments were delivered with sufficient “goodwill” when she announced her tax bill. But the underlying tone is the “dark tendency” of demeaning others and asserting her privileged position at the upper tiers of the American social hierarchy.
What makes remarks like Linton’s so offensive, by Rousseau’s accounting, is that it is not merely enough to be abundantly wealthy. It is the accompanying need to shame the poor. Such shaming does not come from a desire to inspire the poor to work harder, even if that were a legitimate purpose. It rather comes from a psychological need to highlight one’s own status by contrasting it with the less fortunate. As Rousseau observes in his “Discourse on Inequality,”
The rich . . . had hardly learned about the pleasure of dominating than they soon disdained all others . . . like those ravenous wolves which, having once tasted human flesh, reject all other food and no longer want to devour anything but men.
Even after the rich have consumed all the material resources, they can still seek to satisfy their amour propre in mocking the poor. This is not only offensive to the poor who read these signals; it is menacing, as there can be no permanent satisfaction of this “ravenous wolf” desperate for public recognition of high status.
So who was shamed in this incident?
Linton’s gambit failed spectacularly. Not only was she forced to retract and apologize for her remarks, but she will presumably pay a social cost — at least in some circles — by being remembered for being as insufferable as the doomed Marie Antoinette. Some 17th and 18th century philosophers, such as Bernard Mandeville, thought shame was absolutely necessary for maintaining social order.
But shame only works as long as there are broadly shared standards of what counts as decent behavior, which some observers believe is now frayed. Whether shame remains effective, if Rousseau is right, amour propre will continue lurking in the meantime, looking for its next opportunity.
David Lay Williams is professor of political science at DePaul University and co-editor most recently of “Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Fundamental Political Writings” (Broadview, 2017). He is presently writing “‘The Greatest of All Plagues’: Economic Inequality in Western Political Thought,” under contract with Princeton University Press.