“With great power comes great responsibility” is a comic book classic known as the Peter Parker principle. If you are bestowed with gifts, you must gift them back to your community. Noblese Obliege or “nobility obliges” suggests that nobility comes with a responsibility to fulfill obligations to the people who guarantee your status.
This sounds like a social good, and sure it anchors all the great heroic narratives of our modern age, but it appears to be unraveling in modernity. It used to be that we believed the morally good are the ones with gifts, if you weren’t wealthy it was because you didn’t deserve it. It was a bit of a religious and heroic tautology. But it worked! The nobles and the superheroes felt an obligation to their subjects insofar as publicly demonstrating their inherent goodness was crucial to demonstrating their nobility.
A key component of noblese oblige was showing off moral worth by giving to the people without the insistence that the people be inherently good. The people didn’t need to be worthy to get anything. Being worthy was the job of the nobility not the peasants. Which meant that all gifts from nobility to peasants were inherently gratuitous. No one deserves to be given gifts. Gifts were bestowed at random and in significant largess.
I’d suggest the reason our institutional trust is breaking down is not because we are wising up to inequality, but because the narrative arc of nobility living up to its responsibilities have broken down. America’s first robber baron class understood this with their grand social gifts of libraries, parks and endowments. Some of our Billionaires still do. But we no longer feel the gifts match the obligations. No matter how much this new nobility gifts, the rabble is still pissed.
Maybe it’s the insistence on making charity go to worthy causes. Or welfare go to people that deserve it. That is ass backwards. The nobility are supposed to be good. The peons with outstretched arms never had any worth to begin with. If they did then they would definitionally be noblese oblige too. You can’t ask everyone in the system to be good, moral, and true. That’s fucking exhausting. Even Christianity got that sin was so encompassing that literally only God could be expected to be without it. Probably why we used to let nobility get away with bad behavior. That is fine as long as they did their part. The prodigal son got shit without deserving it. That was the moral of the story.
The trouble with a time that has broken with historical arcs of goodness is that now no one is nobility or peasantry. No one is noble or good. Which means nobody deserves anything they get. Which is about as close to the war of all against all as I can imagine. Hobbes would be pleased.