Does wealth breed unethical behavior? I say no.
It’s easy for those of us who aren’t moneyed to lean back in our living room seat of judgement and pontificate about the ethical failings of the wealthy. Hardly a week goes by that this or that rich fat cat doesn’t get his just desserts for what he did, like Texas tycoon R. Allen Stanford who was just convicted on thirteen counts relating to his $7 billion Ponzi scheme. Then there’s Bernie Madoff who’s likely serving the rest of his life for the same kind of crime. Worst of all are the as yet unpunished host of CEO’s, hedge-fund managers, speculators, and other denizens of Wall Street who plunged the world into the great recession.
Is it their wealth, and their desire for greater wealth, that tempts them to commit criminally unethical behavior? This series of studies would seem to strongly indicate yes. Those who were wealthy tended to cheat in games more, took more free candy, were less courteous in their driving habits. The study’s results were quickly published in Crooks & Liars and the Huffington Post, and perhaps led to this hilarious comparison of quotes by Mitt Romney and The Simpsons’ Mr. Burns. But do these indicate that wealth breeds unethical behavior? I am a contrarian, and again I say no.
I am reminded of my career in the Navy. When we were stateside, most sailors behaved everywhere they went. Sure, there were always a few troublemakers, but generally speaking, the sailors behaved. Once we hit an overseas port, however, their behavior would be markedly different. To be sure, most sailors still behaved themselves (particularly in richer ports), but in poorer ports there would always be a significantly increased rate of misconduct, of sailors treating the locals with far less respect than they would treat the locals back in the states. My observation continues to this day, with someone I know very well who is courteous to all when in America, but when this person is in the Philippines, well, it’s not quite a Jekyll-and-Hyde situation, but the difference is stark nonetheless. I suspect that most of the other veterans reading this would agree that they have seen much the same during their careers. For those with little or no overseas experience, think about what you’ve heard about the ugly American tourist, and then read the results of this survey as to who the world’s worst tourists are.
All this would seem to vindicate the conclusions of the studies referenced above, but still I must disagree. I don’t think it’s the wealth at all; instead, I believe it’s the degree to which the person believes that he or she is above the law, that the person believes that he or she is protected from the laws that apply to everyone else. One’s wealth plays a part in that to be sure, but those sailors in overseas ports weren’t rich (though they were blowing money as drunken sailors do). The ones who got in trouble with the locals, however, always seemed to be the ones who thought that the local laws and customs didn’t apply to them, like the American teenager who got caned in Singapore for spray painting cars. He wasn’t a sailor, but none of us felt an ounce of pity for him; the same when in Rome principle applied.
Therefore I would say that no, wealth does not lead to more unethical behavior. Instead, I believe that generally speaking, the greater one’s perceived immunity to the law, the greater the likelihood one will act unethically. If laws and regulations were applied to the rich just as strictly as to the poor, I daresay the rich would be at least as ethical as the poor, if not more so.