One challenge that I encounter often when writing is that of finding an accurate adjective for describing the typical upper-middle-class American (and typical rich American). A common convention is to use the adjective “privileged” – as in, for example, “A disproportionate number of minimum-wage jobs will be filled by privileged teenagers raised in affluent suburbs.” As used in this now-conventional way, the word “privileged” describes the state of being more prosperous economically and better connected socially than is the typical working-class or poor American. In other words, “privileged” is used here as an adjective to describe an economic and social outcome.
I resist using “privileged” in this way. The reason is that the word “privilege” still conveys also a sense of undeserved special treatment. And so while someone might be made economically more prosperous and socially more well-connected because he or she receives undeserved special treatment, becoming economically more prosperous and socially more well-connected does not require undeserved special treatment. Many prosperous people (indeed, in America, still the vast majority of prosperous people) achieve their success through hard work, economic risk-taking (using their own money), prudent behavior, and honest dealings with others – in short, by practicing bourgeois virtues. To call such successful people “privileged” is to mislabel them. It wrongly, if subtly, suggests that they’ve been granted some unusual special treatment that accounts for their success.
Many people are tempted to assert that it is a “privilege” in modern America to be born white, or to be born into a loving two-parent family that instills bourgeois virtues, or to be born without any significant physical or mental disabilities. It’s true that people so born are dealt a better starting hand in life than are many other people. But such a use of “privilege” is too expansive and, hence, runs the risk of verbally papering over important distinctions that should be kept visible. Such an expansive use of the word “privilege” has no obvious boundaries. If we accede to this use of the word “privilege,” then we can say also that it is a privilege to have been born in the U.S. to start with – even, perhaps, regardless of one’s skin color (post-1865) or ethnic background. Even the poorest American today is, by this expansive use of the word “privilege,” privileged in comparison to at least a couple of billion people living today throughout Africa and south and central Asia. So, too, then is anyone born in the modern world “privileged” compared to the vast majority of people born just a few centuries ago and earlier. Such an expansive use of the word “privilege” is misleading.
The etymology of the word “privilege” is obvious if you think about it: “privi” – private; “lege” – legislation. Private legislation. (“Special privileges” is, therefore, a pleonasm.) A person who is truly privileged, therefore, is a person who benefits from a special use of government force wielded in his or her favor. This use of force is not generalizable beyond the individual (or small, closed group) for whom the privilege is created. A genuine privilege is a benefit that government bestows on only an individual or on a small select group with the intention of benefiting that individual or members of that small group even if such benefits come at the greater expense of the general public.
According to this correct understanding of the word “privilege,” the vast majority of upper-middle-class and rich Americans are not privileged. While some of these people attained their wealth through favors conferred illegitimately upon them by the state (and, hence, are indeed privileged), the vast majority earned their prosperity without any such favors.
It’s important not to use words that sneak in to the conversation historical claims and policy conclusions that should be explicitly stated and proven rather than surreptitiously taken as premises. By calling all upper-middle-class and rich Americans (and, in some conversations, even simply middle-class Americans) “privileged” wrong implies that their current economic well-being is due to special favors conferred by the state (or by the collective). Such a use also strongly suggests (if it does not literally imply) that the best, or only, way for “underprivileged” people to become more prosperous is for them to manage to get for themselves some privileges. That suggestion is widely mistaken, as well as one that, if accepted, creates social strife rather than encourages social cooperation.