Life lessons can sometimes appear in the oddest places. Today, it occurred to me that the movie Trading Places, the 1983 comedy starring Dan Aykroyd as a blue-blood snob and Eddie Murphy as a street hustler (and one I’ve watched many times), provides superb and in some ways prescient insight into modern American liberalism.

Consider the setup: The Duke Brothers, old moneyed Wall Streeters, decide to conduct a social experiment to determine whether it is breeding or environment that makes the man. They set up their favored protege, Louis Winthorpe III (Ackroyd), to fall from grace by framing him for a crime of petty theft. They then grab a random “disadvantaged” person, Billy Ray Valentine (Murphy) who is presumed guilty of theft by insulated and fearful blue bloods when he was only trying to do the right thing and return a dropped briefcase, and put him in Winthorp’s stead. Billy Ray is moved into a 1%er town house with a butler and a limousine, while Winthorpe is processed through the criminal justice system.

In short order, Winthorpe descends into petty crime, while Valentine immediately becomes a commodities whiz. Winthorpe is rescued by Ophelia, a hooker with a heart of gold (Jamie Lee Curtis). Valentine and Winthorpe eventually cross paths and figure out that they’re being played by the Dukes. They also figure out that the Dukes are looking to perpetrate a giant con on the commodities market by trading on inside information. With the help of the hooker and the butler, they turn the tables on the Dukes, impoverishing the brothers while enriching themselves.

It’s a great movie, with brilliant performances by Aykroyd, Murphy and the rest of the cast. It’s also an essential bestiary of liberal archetypes. Consider:

  • The Duke brothers are old money, immoral multimillionaires with no qualms whatsoever about destroying the life of their loyal employee, a man who served them well and made them a lot of money. They also had no qualms about breaking the law for personal gain (in a stereotypical fashion: insider trading). They represent the Evil Rich, and they vote for Republicans.

  • Winthorpe, as I noted, is a good soldier. Sure, he is a 1%er, and had no idea how to manage himself when cut off from the 1%er safety nets, but once down among the “common people,” recognized where his loyalties should reside. He is the enlightened 1%er who sides with the working folks instead of “his own.” This is how the Hollywood crowd thinks of themselves and of billionaires who vote for Democrats.

  • Valentine is a street-wise black kid who hustled but didn’t steal. He did the Right Thing every time he was faced with a morally questionable decision. He returned the briefcase, he returned the stolen wallet, he even threw his friends out of the town house when they started to trash the place. He welcomed and respected the “leg up” he was given, and did something with it. He is the poster child for affirmative action.

  • Ophelia is cut from the same cloth as Valentine. She’s from a dead end small town, and her only “assets” are “this body, this face and what I’ve got [in her head]”. Sure, she’s doing something illegal and of questionable propriety, but she’s living an upright life given her circumstances. Her “apartment is a dump, but it’s cheap and clean,” she doesn’t do drugs, she doesn’t have a pimp and she’s got 42 grand in T bills earning interest (don’t laugh, back in 1982, 10 year treasuries were paying nearly 15%). She figures she’s got 3 years until retirement, but of course she invests all her savings in the revenge con at the end of the movie and ends up rich. Mirroring Valentine’s revelation during the party, she starts out by helping Winthorpe purely out of self interest, but comes to like and ultimately love him when she sees him for who he really is.

Valentine and Ophelia therefore represent the “disadvantaged” that liberals purport to champion. They’re struggling to get by, using whatever assets they have (wisecracking charm and looks, respectively), but living nominally honest and independent lives.

Rounding out the cast are the butler Coleman and the Dukes’ “fixer,” Clarence Beeks. Coleman is, of course, long-suffering and unappreciated, and pressed against his will to do the bidding of the evil Dukes. Beeks is a lowlife goon in loud sport jackets (and, obviously, a white male).

In the revenge fantasy, Winthorpe, Valentine, Opheila and Coleman use the (insider) information that the Dukes are going to use their insider information (a crop report stolen by Beeks) to get a leg up in the commodities market before the information in the report goes public and everyone else trades on it. It being a comedy and a revenge fantasy, there’s no hint of concern that the heroes themselves are trading on inside information or that regulators might come down on them, and that, too, plays into the liberal fantasy playbook. Nor is there any consideration that the rest of the traders who got wrapped up in the giant trading mess suffered. Questionable activities are OK if they’re done by the right people for the right purposes. This is a combination of “ends justify the means” (e.g. IRS auditing of conservative PACs) and “we shouldn’t nitpick when the good guys do bad things” (e.g. Hillary Clinton should get a bye on the email scandal).

These tropes are onanistic liberal pipe dreams. They reflect everything that the progressive crowd wants to believe about wealth, opportunity and human nature, and they justify that crowd’s ideas regarding redistribution, regulation and government intrusion into our lives. The rich and their henchmen toy with all those “beneath” them, the poor struggle to get by but live by a higher moral code, and it is only circumstance that differentiates them. Reality is, of course, far different. There are honest and upright folks across the entire economic spectrum, and there are immoral criminals as well. Individuals vary within every stratum of the socioeconomic ladder.

Individualism, however, doesn’t advance the causes of progressivism. In sticking to tropes, liberalism finds justification for intervention. In the movie, the heroes managed to make good by seizing on a rare opportunity to screw over those who screwed them over. That’s not going to happen for most of the “disadvantaged” classes, so the white knights and social justice warriors need to help the poor screw the rich. Thus, progressive taxation. Thus, redistribution. Thus, over-regulation. Thus, the spectrum of labor laws, including minimum wages, health insurance mandates and the like.

Finally, there are the messages about hard work and intellectual parity. The Dukes lead a life of ease. They don’t seem to work much, preferring to sit in their leather wing chairs reading the Wall Street Journal or to watch from the back of their limousine as their underling makes money for them. Winthorpe also lives a life of ease, but does work a bit. His insights make the Dukes money, but we quickly find out that Valentine is just as capable of those insights, despite his lack of education other than a brief and pedantic explanation of how commodities markets work. The message there is that the rich don’t work hard, that anyone can do what they do, and that street smarts can substitute for education and relevant experience. This completely flies in the face of reality, but it supports the hatred of CEOs that is a cornerstone of liberal class warfare. Billy Ray started the movie outside in the snowy winter, pretending to be a double amputee while wheeling himself around on a makeshift cart, and Ophelia is living in a dingy apartment while working as a prostitute. They obviously work harder than the ultra-rich do. In reality, the large majority of wealthy folks are self-made and work very hard, and increasingly, our society pays the poor not to work. But, we mustn’t say such things, because they don’t justify the aforementioned progressive policies.

Yes, I’m having a bit of fun here, and yes, I’m exaggerating a bit. The fundamental points are all there, though, and these tropes are the source of an enormous body of wrong-headed policy that has been perpetrated on our society. None of this spoils the movie, of course, unless one is humorless and seeks out deliberate outrage at all times. It is fun, though, to put on the political filter from time to time when consuming pop culture. There’s much to learn.

Peter Venetoklis

About Peter Venetoklis

I am twice-retired, a former rocket engineer and a former small business owner. At the very least, it makes for interesting party conversation. I'm also a life-long libertarian, I engage in an expanse of entertainments, and I squabble for sport.

Nowadays, I spend a good bit of my time arguing politics and editing this website.

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