Recently, a supporter of Mitt Romney at one of his fundraisers equated poverty with poor education and, by implication, lower intelligence. “I just think if you’re lower income — one, you’re not as educated, two, they don’t understand how it works, they don’t understand how the systems work, they don’t understand the impact.” It seems pretty clear that this woman believes that her station in life, which is due to her wealth and the privileges her wealth can buy, makes her superior in all ways, including intelligence, to those without great wealth. Although this egregious attitude appears to be pretty typical of the 1%, they are not alone in equating material possessions/wealth to intelligence. This relationship, >material possesions = >intelligence, has been in effect for at least 5000 years, perhaps much longer.
For millions of years, our ancestors were foragers moving around their territory hunting animals and gathering other foodstuffs with which to sustain life. Since they were constantly on the move, minimizing material possessions was a necessity. Particularly rich foraging environments, such as along the Northwest Coast of North America, did allow foraging groups to settle down and accumulate some possessions, but large settlements did not begin to become widespread until after the domestication of plants and animals.
Once a group settled down, it was easy to accumulate possessions. The number of possessions increased when craft specialties developed. Each family no longer had to make everything it needed. Families could trade what they made for something different someone else made. Increasing population size and craft specialization led to the development of class structure and governing hierarchies. Those at the top now had the resources to obtain even more possessions that became status symbols. The ancient “1%” not only had the highest status and the most possessions, they had all the power. We can modify the relationship to read >power = >possessions = >intelligence. The belief in this relationship still holds sway many millenia later.
The result is that those in power, those having the most complex material culture (i.e. possessions) believe that this relationship is evidence that they are more intelligent than those lacking in possessions and power. Those at the bottom of the social hierarchy in agricultural or pastoral societies who possessed the least knew they were considered inferior in all ways to those at the top of the hierarchy. Enculturation in this society probably led them to believe this relationship of possessions and power to intelligence was true. However, there were others who possessed even less than they did: the foragers. The result was a disdain for the foraging lifestyle and a belief that foragers were inferior in intelligence to those who were not foragers. Foraging was deemed to be too similar to how animals lived. Foragers began to be seen by non-foragers as subhuman. Therefore, as with other animals, foragers could be killed with impunity and their territories taken by the ‘real’ humans to use more ‘productively’. This continues to happen in the Amazon, the forests of Southeast Asia, and anywhere else foraging populations struggle to survive.
If foragers, who have almost no possessions, are considered subhuman, then the poor, who have hardly more possessions, are themselves considered barely human. Only true humans can be considered intelligent, so foragers are unintelligent and the poor are at the lowest levels of human intelligence; if they were truly intelligent, they would have many possessions. Certainly, that is what the Romney supporter mentioned above appears to believe. We can modify again the relationship to read >power = >possessions = >intelligence = >human.
Perhaps that particular Romney supporter does not consciously think of herself as more human than those who are poorer than she is, but her statements and behavior, and that of those like her, implies that subconsciously, she does believe that those in the lower economic echelons are less human. Given a belief in the relationship of >power = >possessions =>intelligence = >human, it is not too surprising that those with that mindset do not want to pay more taxes that might go to government programs that would help lower-income individuals and families. Only true humans, those like themselves, are worthy of support.