July 31, 2021

Prosperity: The Germans’ envy complex towards the rich

Roak people have an image problem in Germany. The majority of the population ascribes them above all bad qualities such as greed, selfishness and ruthlessness. Social envy is also more widespread in this country than in the USA or Sweden, for example, where wealth is rated much more positively.

This is shown by an international comparative study on society’s attitudes towards the wealthy. It is based on representative surveys carried out by the Institut für Demoskopie Allensbach and Ipsos MORI in Germany, France, Great Britain, USA, Sweden, Italy and Spain. The results are published in the June issue of the journal “Economic Affairs” (“Attitudes to wealth in seven countries: The Social Envy Coefficient and the Rich Sentiment Index”).

The differences in attitudes vary considerably between the seven countries. In addition to the Germans, the French and Spaniards are also more critical of the rich than the Swedes, Americans and British do. Italy occupies a middle position here. At least 1,000 people were interviewed in detail in each country. A wealth of at least one million euros (or pounds or dollars) in addition to home ownership was set as the benchmark for wealth.

Germans attribute negative traits to the rich

In all seven countries, the respondents were presented with the same list of 14 personality traits, combined with the question of which traits are particularly common in rich people. In Germany, the seven negative traits (egotistical, greedy, materialistic, arrogant, reckless, superficial and emotionally cold) were named on average by 44 percent of the respondents as characteristic of the rich.

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In Great Britain this proportion is only half as high with 22 percent approval. In the Kingdom, the wealthy are more likely to have positive character traits (intelligent, hardworking, honest, resourceful, optimistic, daring, visionary) than negative ones. The positive picture also prevails in the USA and France. In Germany, on the other hand, it is clearly the other way round, and the Italians and Spaniards also suspect that the rich are mainly bad characters.

As the study shows, the attitude towards the rich depends heavily on whether you personally know one or more millionaires. The picture is much more positive among those surveyed who have wealthy people in their circle of acquaintances. This can be seen, for example, in assessing whether the rich are honest.

Source: WORLD infographic

In Germany, only three percent of the total population attribute this positive character trait to the well-off. But of the Germans who have contact with the wealthy themselves, 42 percent believe in the honesty of the wealthy. In other countries, too, there is a large discrepancy between the close-up and the distance picture. In Italy, however, only 15 percent of those surveyed with their own contacts with millionaires believe that the rich are honest.

The majority of Germans assume that the relationships between their parents or simply inheritances are the most important reason for wealth and not one’s own achievements. In addition, the opinion is widespread in this country that the wealth of one part of society is only possible because another part lives in poverty.

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“The zero-sum belief is a common view of business life among laypeople, according to which the gain of one person – as in tennis, for example – must always be the loss of the other,” says the author of the study, the German publicist and wealth researcher Rainer Zitelmann. In those countries where the majority of respondents believe that the more the rich have, the less there is left for the poor, social envy is particularly pronounced.

Social envy was determined by the demoscopes with numerous indirect questions, for example by agreeing to the statement: “When I hear that a millionaire once lost a lot of money through a risky business, I think: That serves him right.” for a drastic cut in managerial salaries, according to Zitelmann, signals social envy. Because an envious person does not primarily strive for a better position himself, but is characterized primarily by the fact that he grudges advantages to the envied.

The elderly in particular envy the rich

Germany ranks second among the seven countries examined when it comes to social envy. Only in France are the wealthy more grudged about prosperity. Great Britain forms the opposite pole here. And the millionaires in the USA, Spain and Sweden also have less resentment to fear.

Source: WORLD infographic

Age plays a role in attitudes towards the rich. In Germany, France and Italy, it is mainly older people aged 60 and over who envy millionaires for prosperity. This trait is much rarer among the younger generation.

The fact that social envy increases with age is most pronounced in Italy. In contrast, the opposite is true of the Americans: Here it is more often the younger ones who grudge. However, even among young Americans, social envy is much less pronounced than it is among young Germans.

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A skeptical attitude towards the rich is also important in terms of tax policy. Because, according to the study, widespread social envy is closely linked to consent to harsh taxation.

A majority of the Europeans and Americans surveyed are in favor of the rich paying high taxes. But this is not enough for Germans and French. In both countries, a majority is calling for the rich to “not only pay high, but very high taxes”.

In the USA, on the other hand, only one in three shares this statement, in Sweden it is even slightly less at 32 percent.

Source: WORLD infographic

The study points out that in the Scandinavian country rich people were taxed extremely high until the 1980s, which weakened the economy and thus had negative consequences for society as a whole. At that time, some very wealthy people like Ikea founder Ingvar Kamprad turned their backs on their homeland because of the tax burden.

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Sweden reformed its tax system in the 1990s. Although income taxes are not low overall in an international comparison despite the reduction, they are no longer in the top range. And the wealth tax and inheritance tax have even been completely abolished.

In Germany, on the other hand, the debate about tax increases for high earners is gaining momentum during the election campaign. Left, Greens and the SPD are also calling for the reintroduction of a wealth tax and a tightening of inheritance tax.

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