DJ Taylor: Why do the rich need ever more money?

Those who aspire to great wealth expect to be rewarded for their drive – and then long to do nothing

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As the argument about executive salaries grinds into gear again, and the newspapers are full of rich men's apologists proclaiming that nothing can be done even it were morally desirable so to do, it is worth asking what the proper attitude ought to be to privilege-based inequality here in our meritocratic 21st century.

The issue is complicated by the fact that the rich men's apologists will keep on maintaining that £5m a year in take-home has nothing to do with privilege. No, they fondly insist, it is a reward for drive and determination, expertise and perseverance. The banker, the reasoning goes, trousers his seven-figure package for the same reason that a surgeon earns more than a refuse operative. Not many people have sufficient skill to do these jobs and we are lucky to have them.

True, up to a point, the egalitarian will perhaps concede. On the other hand, what the defenders of remuneration committee largesse see as meritocracy is usually only privilege trading under another name: the built-in advantages of people whose sprint up the economic ladder is guaranteed by heredity, education and connection. Equality of opportunity has little value, this counter-argument runs, if three-quarters of the population is constitutionally incapable of benefiting from it. Ah, the free-marketeer ripostes, the logical extension of this is equality of outcome, and why should we stop the high-flyer reaping the rewards of a talent which most of his peers don't have the good fortune to possess?

The resultant impasse has been agitating the conscience of the liberal left for the best part of half a century. Back in the bright-eyed Sixties, there was an idea that the possession of a dazzling intellect or an ability to make money was almost shameful, something either to be resolutely hushed up or offering a splendid opportunity for displays of public guilt. This attitude infected certain bleak redoubts of the state educational system for nearly 30 years and is still not quite extinct.

Naturally, this line of thinking is quite untenable here in go-getting 2012. A much better weapon to turn on the titan of the merchant bank or the Croesus of the hedge fund is simple utility. What can anyone possibly want with £5m? What is the point of it? What, even, is the advantage of inherited wealth? Nothing is more amusing than the sight of a self-made tycoon whining about the taxman's interest in his heirs while ignoring the fact that this contradicts the principle of self-reliance that got him where he is in the first place.

The really depressing thing about "wealth" is the futility of the life that comes with it. A Radio 4 documentary recently questioned aspiring internet millionaires about their ambitions. Almost without exception, they pined to do no work and holiday in the Bahamas. Orwell once observed that you could never deny the working classes their materialism. But then Orwell was living in an age before "automated income streams" and "affiliate marketing".

To watch The Iron Lady was the visual equivalent of being taken as a child to Madame Tussauds. Everyone on display – with the solitary exception of Meryl Streep – seemed vaguely familiar, but such are the limits of prosthesis that it took an intense effort of memory to bring the targets down. The ascetic-looking chap with the manic expression was, let me see... Sir Keith Joseph? The mild-mannered character with a faint resemblance to my late father-in-law was Geoffrey Howe. But one aspect of the biopic directed by Phyllida Lloyd was thoroughly authentic. Nowhere in recent film, fiction or drama have I seen such a convincing take on the psychology of the old-style lower-middle-class meritocrat.

There was a terrific scene, early on, in which the young Margaret Roberts watched some of the Grantham talent – giggling, silk-stockinged and high-heeled – prance past her father's grocery store on the way to the cinema. She envied the girls, but at the same time you could see that she despised them, burned to shine at their expense, succeed where they would fail, deny herself short-term sensual gratification in the hope of long-term moral triumph. As the film went on, this psychological extremism took on an ever-sharper edge. While resentment of privilege, a belief in the eventual triumph of the will, the lure of duty and the assumption that work is valuable in itself all had their place in this value system, rising above them was the sheer loneliness of someone who has left one world for another and is, effectively, a stranger in both. I say "old-style", for the mark of this approach is its residual puritanism. You could never imagine Margaret Thatcher holidaying in the Bahamas.

There was a deliciously ironical moment at the US Supreme Court last week when the rock star Steven Tyler took the stand. The court is currently debating a First Amendment appeal on the overturning of the Federal Communications Commission's ability to censor the TV networks. Mr Tyler deplored the removal of these powers on the grounds that there is "a certain charm and passion and magic" in not constantly employing full-frontal nudity and profane language.

One can lose count of the number of occasions on which an eminent figure from the world of light entertainment has complained about a collapse in standards for which he himself is partly responsible. Could this, I asked myself, be the Steven Tyler who appeared in the celebrated Aerosmith video for a song called "Love in an Elevator" ("Lurv in an elevator... going down, down" etc)? But then Vinnie Jones is thought to dislike the use of four-letter words, and Hugh Hefner's recent 85th birthday celebrations were full of denunciations of internet porn. Clearly there is hope for Richard Desmond yet.

One of the intriguing things about The Killing, which as a recent convert I am currently racing through at the rate of an episode a night, is the apparent inflexibility of the Danish language. Two characters will chatter gutturally on for a sentence or two only for English words like "office furniture" or "housewarming party" to make a dramatic entry into the dialogue. Even "paranoia", a Greek word certainly, but rendered down by other European languages, popped up amid the taks and the jeg forstar ikkes. All this reminded me of an entry in the diary of the Edwardian man of letters A C Benson, the son of Queen Victoria's favourite archbishop and author of the words to "Land of Hope and Glory". An acquaintance of Benson's, on holiday in Wales, attended a church service deep in the principality where the sermon was in Welsh. The man noticed that the preacher kept interpolating the word "honesty". Why was this, he enquired afterwards, only to be told that there was, apparently, "no exact equivalent".

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