Are the rich smarter than us?

Living in an extremely unequal society does weird things to our perceptions of other people. We raise up some as paragons of intelligence based on their wealth and high incomes, people who should be listened to above all others, but, without considering whether or not they may be any more knowledgeable in the matter they are discussing.

In the time between now and the election you’re likely to hear all sorts of people pipe up with their views on politics and the economy, many of them extremely wealthy individuals, with examples being wheeled out in support of all the major parties. But when listening to their contributions it’s worth asking what they know that makes their view especially valuable and what they are basing their view on. More importantly, are they better informed than other people on what works and what doesn’t when building a better society and stronger economy?

Perhaps billionaires are smarter than everyone else; they’re certainly better educated. 26% of billionaireshave a master’s degree compared to just 9% in the general population. But if this alone made them better qualified, you would expect they’d be listened to far less than academics, when the reverse is true. We see far more headlines of business leaders warning of the consequences of policy rather than experts in that area of policy.

If highly paid people aren’t valued in public debate based on their general education then the presumption would be that they are valued on the basis of their particular expertise. This isn’t about a left or right bias in the views put forward, but rather a misalignment of expertise and the valuing of that person’s view. “There is no record of any serious free market thinker ever outlining that cutting tax rates on high earners is good because it encourages the rich to spend” according to a prominent free market think tank, and yet the managing director of a real estate firm is published arguing exactly that. It makes more sense to ask an economist, whether they work at the Institute of Economic Affairs or the New Economics Foundation, about how a policy will affect the economy rather than asking a person who works in one area of that economy (or better yet look at the research on the subject).

The most pronounced case of this misplaced belief of wealth bringing knowledge is with wealthy businesspeople. It’s not surprising that the views of macroeconomists (people whose job is to study the economy on a large scale) often differ from those of wealthy businesspeople. A business person is no more an expert in economics than a human being is an expert in sociology. Whilst a business person may be highly knowledgeable about their own role in their own company and how to fulfil that role it is quite clearly different from determining the rules that govern an economy. They also have a vested interest in their own private success and in the health of their particular business. This is not the same thing as the market or the economy in general succeeding; the views of individual ‘business leaders’ are often referred to as the views of ‘business’, even when the approach they are advocating may harm other businesses whose owners or managers have less access to the media.

None of this is to say that a businessperson shouldn’t comment on a policy that will make her worse off. However, it’s questionable if this should be valued above the contribution of a working parent who needs more support for childcare or a person on a zero hours contract struggling to pay their heating bill. If we’re looking for someone’s personal view rather than consulting them for expertise it doesn’t make sense to prioritise the rich over everyone else.

Tim Stacey, Senior Policy and Research Advisor