The recent college admissions scandal has raised fundamental questions about notions of fairness and meritocracy. As wealthy and famous parents paid exorbitant sums for a “side door” to get their children admitted to elite academic institutions, those lacking such resources have rightly expressed indignation. Especially since the advent of standardized exams, such as the SAT and ACT, these institutions have held themselves out as models of fairness and meritocracy — and a pathway for the talented from all walks of life to enjoy the climb to the top, however they might define it.
But such scandals pose even more fundamental questions that Americans must increasingly confront. Does concentrated wealth and radical economic inequality almost assure repeated attempts to create such side doors?
Some are arguing that poverty, not inequality, is the problem
Some intellectuals have lately been dismissing concerns about our nation’s extreme economic inequality. Philosopher Harry Frankfurt has recently argued that worrying about inequality represents an unhealthy “preoccupation with the condition of others.” Economist Deirdre McCloskey has likewise insisted, “It doesn’t matter ethically whether the poor have the same number of diamond bracelets and Porsche automobiles as do owners of hedge funds.”
What matters, both suggest, is whether the poor have enough to eat, a roof over their heads and some semblance of equality under the law. These views are well-captured by the doctrine of “sufficientarianism” — that is to say, it’s poverty, not inequality, that represents the real moral concern for us in the 21st century.
History’s great moral philosophers disagree, arguing that great wealth corrupts
Yet the accumulated wisdom of previous centuries suggests something very different: that economic inequality and highly concentrated wealth represent their own dangers to moral and civic life; and that extremely wealthy citizens pose distinct concerns. For Plato, in about the 4th century B.C., great riches foster “luxury and a lack of restraint.” The fabulously rich, in his account, have little interest in friendship, community, sharing or conforming their behavior to legal and moral standards. Their fortunes, he reasoned, give them a sense of impunity. For this reason, Plato’s Athenian Stranger deduces in the “Laws,” “it is impossible for someone to be both unusually good and unusually rich.”
Nearly two millennia later, Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), though worlds apart from Plato in many respects, came to remarkably similar conclusions about the effects of wealth. “Dispositions,” he reasoned in “De Homine,” “are frequently made more proud by riches and civil power, for those who can do more demand that they be allowed more, that is, they are more inclined to cause injuries and they are more unsuited for entering a society of equitable law with those who can do less.” This speaks directly to those who, like McCloskey, insist that great individual fortunes are unproblematic so long as there exists a genuine equality under the law.
Perhaps most to the point might be Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), who argued in “The Social Contract” that a stable and secure republic requires that “no citizen is rich enough to be able to purchase another, and none is so poor that he is forced to sell himself.” In radically unequal societies, Rousseau suggested, the wealthy feel justified in purchasing moral compromises from their less-wealthy neighbors — soccer coaches, SAT proctors and the like.
As Rousseau elaborated in “Discourse on Inequality,” in radically unequal societies, having the poor and even middle classes depend on the wealthy “engenders so much indifference to good and evil altogether” — because the ordinary citizen wants not just to have enough to eat but also to keep up with the Joneses, so to speak.
Although the poor may well have enough to eat, a society that values and celebrates wealth above all offers the comparatively poor all the incentives they need to sell out their virtue to the highest bidder.
What does this mean for the college admissions scandal?
Plato taught that when people possess enormous fortunes, compared with their peers, they assume they have impunity from the moral standards imposed on everyone else. Hobbes taught that with this sense of impunity, the fabulously wealthy come to believe they are above the laws that would punish the poor, were they able to attempt the same.
Plato’s and Hobbes’s logic was on display in the affluenza case in Fort Worth a few ago, in which a wealthy 16-year-old was given probation for a drunken-driving case that left four dead — because, his lawyer successfully argued, his wealth made it difficult for him to understand that ordinary legal and moral standards applied to him.
The college admissions scandal is merely an extension of the same logic — with the important exception that this time the perpetrators are likely to be held accountable. But the underlying insights of Plato and Hobbes — that great wealth imbues a sense of impunity from moral and legal standards — offer a compelling explanation of how both of these episodes came about in the first place.
Beyond Plato’s and Hobbes’s insights into how enormous fortunes warp their possessors, Rousseau taught that those fortunes typically coexist with the relatively poor. The problem is not just that a cluster of oligarchs are prepared to ignore conventional morality and laws, according to Rousseau, but also that society praises people primarily for their wealth — which nudges the comparatively poor into helping with schemes like the admissions scandal so that they might also get a taste of the wealth.
Although details on the scandal are still emerging, federal prosecutors allege that one parent spent $6.5 million to get his/her child into a college. That means someone accepted that money. Rousseau taught that it in unequal societies that value money over virtue, purchasing the moral capitulation of those less well-off becomes easier.
Great inequality erodes virtue at the top, middle and bottom
In other words, the Western tradition helps us see the college admissions scandal as inevitable, one of many predictable manifestations of contemporary inequality. Fabulously wealthy parents assume they are entitled to extend their wealth, status and privilege — and that standard rules of college admission simply do not apply to them. The comparative poverty of some of their neighbors nudges them into complicity in their schemes.
Simply ensuring that the poor “have enough” does little to address these underlying concerns.
David Lay Williams is professor of political science at DePaul University and author of Rousseau’s ‘Social Contract’: An Introduction (Cambridge University Press, 2014). He is writing a book on economic inequality in Western political thought.