Monthly Archives: May 2014

From Epigram Analysis unit, 2012

A government that robs Peter to pay Paul can always depend on the support of Paul.
George Bernard Shaw


This quote reflects George Bernard Shaw’s economic beliefs, although it can be interpreted in a few different ways. For example, in America today, we have a progressive tax system, established in part by the 16th Amendment. The general idea of this tax system is that it taxes the wealthy at a higher rate than it does the poor, thereby redistributing the wealth from the rich to the poor. In a democratic system, this type of tax almost always develops because everyone wants a share of the rich’s money without having to do anything but vote for it. However, Shaw was an avid Socialist who believed in nationalization and collectivization, two ideas inherently contradictory to this quote. In nationalization, where industries are put under government control, and collectivization, where land and wealth is placed under government control, the government is effectively robbing the rich to pay the poor. Perhaps this quote is a reference to the corruption that Shaw felt was present at the time – Paul might be a lobbyist or otherwise politically connected and influential individual, who conspires with the government to take a share of government revenue. Under this interpretation, Shaw’s political ideology would also not make sense, since in every socialist example, those in government receive a disproportionate amount of government income and are generally corrupt.


Jason Li responds too:



This particularly catchy epigram is an oversimplification of a fundamental political and economic belief held by George Bernard Shaw. Interestingly, he does not identify Peter or Paul, which are seemingly very generic names. It can be seen with multiple localized perspectives, in that “Peter” and “Paul” are interchangeable, and both rich and poor classes could hypothetically fit in those slots. For example, a system where “Peter” represents the upper echelon of society and “Paul” represents the lower echelon would be post-revolutionary Cuba, in which Communist Dictator Castro stripped the rich of their assets to distribute them to the impoverished rural farmers, and therefore enjoyed enormous popularity among those impoverished farmers. However, a system where the opposite was true could be Tsarist Russia, where “Peter” is the peasant class and “Paul” is the nobility. The Imperial monarchy of Russia had an implicit deal with the Russian Orthodox Church, the armed forces, and the nobility to work together to keep the serfs poor, ignorant, and contributing the vast majority of their economic output to their landowners. While this system collapsed amid the turmoil of WWI, it did create immense loyalty to the monarchy among the nobles, which showed when they uniformly pledged their allegiance to the monarchists in the coming civil war. Ultimately, what this epigram truly means, at its most basic level, is that a government, no matter who is being oppressed and who is being rewarded, intrinsically has the support of those being rewarded. As such, it speaks darkly about human nature, as regardless of the severity of the robbing, even if it includes lethal measures, the rewarded will still stand with those handing over assets.

All this must be taken with a grain of salt, as Shaw was a devoted Stalinist and a supporter of the Eugenics movement, which was more famously adopted by Hitler.

Robert Cheng