In the Gilded Age of the late 19th century, the American rich walked tall. They dressed the part. Top hats, canes, tails, spats, you name it. They built glorious mansions for all the world to see. They traveled in style, and did so publicly. They were profiled in popular magazines. Indeed, they were idolized and studied and emulated.
Today, the rich are different. They wear jeans and sneakers and ratty-looking sweaters. If they build large homes, they make sure they are inaccessible and nearly invisible. They talk like the people. They affect the way of the common folk. They pretend to be like everyone else. If they are famously rich, they give vast sums away, sometimes to dubious causes. They even call for taxes on themselves.
Here’s one theory: Property rights are weak today. This came to me in looking at the Index of Economic Freedom and how the U.S. is slipping further and further. The main reason given in the survey is that property rights are no longer secure here. The government can enter your factory and shut it down anytime. It can freeze your bank account. It can prevent mergers and acquisitions. It can slap on regulations that make your product unmarketable. Civil forfeitures are common.
The more property is vulnerable to looting by any source, the more people have the incentive to hide their wealth. In extreme cases, the rich might have a reason to publicly destroy their own wealth as a signal to would-be looters: I am not worth what you think I’m worth. This might be why so many among the rich are aggressive in their push for higher taxes. It’s a way of saying, “My money doesn’t matter to me, so it should not matter to you either. Leave me alone.”
I’m thinking about this whole subject because I just read an extremely interesting paper by economist Peter Leeson. It is called “Human Sacrifice.” He actually seeks to come up with an economic explanation for the persistence of human sacrifice in certain tribal conditions. It’s not such a surprising topic for him. He is, after all, the author of The Invisible Hook: The Hidden Economics of Pirates, a book that became one of the most praised and admired historical books in the last few years. It is also a fantastic read.
His new paper looks into the economics of human sacrifice. He focuses on the 19th-century experience of the Konds, an indigenous Indian people located in the eastern province of Orissa, India.
It was an agricultural community that variously prospered depending on weather conditions. Here, annual ritual sacrifice of human beings from other tribes, purchased with money collected from within the tribe, was practiced to great fanfare in opulent ceremonies. It was brutal and ghastly. The number of lives lost is uncountable, but very large, judging from every available report.
The whole thing was justified on religious grounds. But might have there been another reason?
Consider a seemingly unrelated fact: The great problem that vexed the Konds was intertribal relations. Within their own communities, they had peace and security. But outside of them, there was insecurity and chaos. It was not uncommon for the Konds to invade other tribes and steal what they could, nor was it uncommon for outsiders to do the same to them. All the tribes lived in fear of each other. Property rights were always vulnerable to invasion.
Professor Leeson tries to connect the dots here and make sense of the sacrifice in light of the insecurity of property rights. By putting on a hugely conspicuous display of disregarding something as valuable as a human being paid for with community money, Leeson theorizes, the tribe was attempting to broadcast the idea that there really was nothing of value to be stolen from them. This was a public act to ward off envy and invasion.
Tellingly, the sacrifice would take place in the middle of the agricultural season. “By sacri…ficing humans between the sowing and harvesting of crops, Kond communities destroyed wealth preemptively,” Leeson writes. “By sacrificing humans during the agricultural cycle but not appreciably after its completion, Kond communities destroyed wealth before other communities realized their output values and, in the event that those values incentivized aggression, before communities could mobilize for such aggression.”
Now, to illustrate the thesis, Leeson looks at the experience of how the practice came to end. Understandably, British colonial powers did everything they could to stop it. They tried moral suasion. They tried threatening violence They tried pure monetary payoffs. But nothing worked. The human sacrifices continued.
Finally, the colonial powers tried something more creative. They offered negotiation and justice services that would bring about peace and trade between tribes, provided that the Konds would stop the ritual sacrifice of human beings. The Konds readily accepted and the practice came to an end.
Professor Leeson briefly speculates on the implications here. How many others have made a show of poverty and wealth destruction as a means of disincentivizing violence? He suggests that this helps account for why monks in the Middle Ages made poverty part of the religious discipline. The Middle Ages were dangerous times to be rich, and monasteries were often exactly that. To avoid attracting looters, pillagers, and invaders, the monks took vows of poverty. (This is not to belittle the religious motivation, but only to say that it had a practical purpose as well.)
This makes a tremendous amount of sense to me.
And the applications of this idea are all around us. I know people who drive old cars when they could easily afford new ones because they want to avoid incentivizing theft. The same is true of people who could live in large houses in the center of town, but instead choose small apartments and keep their large real estate holdings out of public view.
This also explains what have come to be called “self-hating billionaires,” who conspicuously parade their attachment to welfare ideology and redistributionist politics. It’s all an effort of self-protection in times when property rights are so insecure. Better make a display of your disregard for wealth than tempt the state to disgorge you of all you own.
So think of this the next time that you see a sweater-clad Bill Gates giving hundreds of millions to far-flung charity causes that you know probably won’t amount to much. And consider that this might be a reason that CEOs of very successful companies like to follow Steve Jobs’ lead and dress in jeans and sneakers. They might even forgo the large house in favor of a minimalist apartment.
People do what they do to survive. When property rights are not secure, the well-to-do make public acts of self-immolation in order to survive.
Should the time come when property rights are secure again, we will see the behavior change. None of us will be truly safe until the rich again walk the streets with pride, live in huge houses in full view of the hoi polloi, and dress proper to their station in life.
After all, a world that is not safe for the rich is not safe for the rest of us either.