When engaging in dialogue, people may attempt to support their argument by appealing to the wealth or lack of wealth of the individual(s) in question. Such an appeal can be fallacious. When someone argues that a proposition is true because of the wealth of the individual who said it or the prosperity of the institution which supports it, they have committed the Appeal to Wealth fallacy. In addition, this fallacy is committed when someone argues that a statement or proposition should be rejected because the individual or institution which said or supports it is poor. The fact of the matter is that truth claims and factual matters do not usually depend on the financial situation of the person making the claim. Therefore, to reject what someone says simply because they are poor, or to accept what someone says simply because they are rich is fallacious. Consider a few examples:
Michael says, “Mr. Frank gave a great speech about how to manage one’s finances and how to safely and wisely invest one’s money. I think you should listen to what he has to say.”
Rachel replies, “Why do you believe that we should trust his advice?”
Michael responds, “Because Mr. Frank is very rich. His investments bring him over $50 million a year. He certainly knows how to invest his money wisely, and we would be well advised to listen to him.”
Unfortunately for Michael, just because someone is rich and has good investments does not mean that their advice is good and should be imitated. Perhaps Mr. Frank got rich because of other factors besides wise investment; for example, he may have received his money from his father’s or family’s estate. If so, then he may have not worked to get it himself and thus might not know as much about investing wisely as Michael assumes he does. Further, it is possible that Mr. Frank became wealthy through involvement in illegal or questionable activities. As can be seen, it is fallacious to assume that Mr. Frank’s advice should be followed solely because he is rich.
Sarah says, “Have you heard about the new tax laws they are attempting to pass?”
Lucy replies, “No I have not. What are they like?”
Sarah responds, “The new laws will lower taxes for the upper class and cut spending in a number of areas. What do you think about that?”
Lucy replies, “I wonder whether these new laws are politically motivated rather than being motivated by sound arguments.”
Sarah responds, “I don’t know about that. I think those who argue in favor of these new tax laws give some good arguments. In addition, the only people opposing the new laws are the poor who want the rich to be taxed more. But they would not know much about how to manage the economy. They are poor, after all.”
Sarah’s response implies that because people are poor, they must not know much about sound economics. This kind of statement is very similar to the well-known statement, “If you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich?” There are multiple problems with this. First, just because someone is poor does not automatically mean they do not know about sound economics. People become poor for many reasons other than ignorance in investing, saving, and spending money; for example, many people go bankrupt due to the medical costs incurred for treatment of life-threatening diseases. Others become poor due to a bad economy, a factor which is not tied to their own ability to be frugal in the use of their money. Thus, it is false to say that poor people do not know how to wisely use money and lack knowledge about how the economy should be run.
Another significant problem with Sarah’s statement is that it assumes that the rich people who are supporting the laws would automatically know more than the poor. This claim is another appeal to wealth fallacy. In addition, it is a mistake to uncritically trust someone or some organization because they are wealthy. In the above example, if the people and organizations influencing the passage of the tax laws stand to gain by the resulting lower taxes, that will likely bias them against other competing tax plans. These organizations may have lobbied the politicians to pass the laws, perhaps even contributing financial support to these politicians or to special interest groups. Thus, as can be seen, stating that something is true because it is being advocated by rich individuals and businesses, or false because it is being opposed by poor individuals, is a fallacy.
Gloria says, “I have received a number of letters in the past month from a charity organization asking me to donate money to help feed hungry people in undeveloped nations. Do you think I should send some money to help them?”
Nate replies, “Have you researched the organization and if so, what have you learned about it?”
Gloria responds, “It is a small organization that uses the money to purchase food, water, and medical supplies for a few villages in Africa. On average, they are able to help feed and treat a few hundred people per year.”
Nate replies, “I would caution you against giving money to that organization due to its small size. You should seek out a larger organization.”
Gloria responds, “Why? What does it being small have to do with anything?”
Nate replies, “Because the institution is small, only having the finances to help a few villages, it stands to reason that they do not have the finances to set up their organization in a way that will maximize the money you send to them. The money you send may be wasted and likely will not all go to helping the people you wish to help. Therefore, you should give your money to a large and well organized charity that will take the money and use it effectively without incurring loss.”
Nate’s statement is a slightly different variation on the appeal to wealth fallacy. In this case, Nate is arguing that the poor charity must necessarily possess a certain negative characteristic, namely the inability to properly maximize the use of donated money, while the large charity necessarily possesses the positive characteristic of being able to use the donated money to its full extent. This is fallacious for two reasons: First, while it is true that poor individuals and small businesses can sometimes spend more money on things than rich individuals and businesses, this is not always the case. Just because the charity is small does not mean it can not have the leadership, organization, and resources to make full use of the money that is given to it.
Nate’s statement is also fallacious because the fact that the large charity has more money does not automatically mean it is using its money well. In fact, it may be doing the exact opposite, funneling donated money into areas the giver did not intend their money to go towards.
The bottom line: While appeals to wealth can be common, it is a fallacy to assume that a statement is true because the one making the statement is rich. It is also a fallacy to state that rich individuals and organizations must necessarily possess positive characteristics. In addition, it is fallacious to assume that a statement is false because the speaker is poor, and that being poor necessarily gives one a negative characteristic.