It’s no crime to be poor, but is it a crime to be rich? Farhad Manjoo argues that we should “abolish” billionaires.
“Some ideas about how to make the world better require careful, nuanced thinking about how best to balance competing interests,” [Tom Socca] began. “Others don’t: Billionaires are bad. We should presumptively get rid of billionaires. All of them.”
Mr. Scocca — a longtime writer at Gawker until that site was muffled by a billionaire — offered a straightforward argument for kneecapping the wealthiest among us. A billion dollars is wildly more than anyone needs, even accounting for life’s most excessive lavishes. It’s far more than anyone might reasonably claim to deserve, however much he believes he has contributed to society.
By “competing interests,” he means values, as in things that Socca believes are more important than other things. By “nuanced thinking,” he means no thinking at all, just believing. The question isn’t whether anyone “needs” a billion dollars, but it’s not as if society plucks some random guy out of the crowd and a loud voice proclaims, “You shall be a billionaire.”
But Manjoo thinks only of tech billionaires, since he’s a tech writer, and doesn’t like them very much.
But it is an illustration of the political precariousness of billionaires that the idea has since become something like mainline thought on the progressive left. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are floating new taxes aimed at the superrich, including special rates for billionaires. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who also favors higher taxes on the wealthy, has been making a moral case against the existence of billionaires. Dan Riffle, her policy adviser, recently changed his Twitter name to “Every Billionaire Is A Policy Failure.” Last week, HuffPost asked, “Should Billionaires Even Exist?”
The “moral” case is that people who are wealthier than Bernie, Liz and AOC believe they’re entitled to be should forfeit their gains to be transfered to people who might be inclined to vote for Bernie, Liz or AOC. In fairness, the argument is that the vast wealth of the superrich could be used to pay for the needs of the poor, and even if the superrich were super kind to the poor, they still shouldn’t exist because it’s unfair and immoral. As Riffle’s twitter handle says, “Every Billionaire Is A Policy Failure.” That means no billionaire is a financial success.
I suspect the question is getting so much attention because the answer is obvious: Nope. Billionaires should not exist — at least not in their present numbers, with their current globe-swallowing power, garnering this level of adulation, while the rest of the economy scrapes by.
As Manjoo typically does, he conflates people being billionaires with our reaction to billionaires. They receive undue respect and adulation? So cut it out. They have too much power? Sure, but then, if not the people with vast wealth, who? Me? You? Manjoo? He writes for the New York Times, and I think he’s got too much power because I disagree with him sometimes.
But the adulation we heap upon billionaires obscures the plain moral quandary at the center of their wealth: Why should anyone have a billion dollars, why should anyone be proud to brandish their billions, when there is so much suffering in the world?
Billionaires got that way for different reasons, but for the most part, they made their money with some brains and a lot of luck. But there’s suffering in the world, so it’s immoral for anyone to be that rich? For those billionaires who want to, give it back, help the people, do good. If they don’t, it’s their money. As Manjoo reveals by his failure to make an argument, and instead devolve to “the answer is obvious,” he fails to see any reason why a person needs a fancier car than a Prius.
In contrast, Will Wilkenson of the Niskanen Center, in a brilliant retort, points out a detail Manjoo misses.
But there’s a big moral difference between positive-sum wealth production and zero-sum wealth extraction — a difference that corresponds to a rough-and-ready distinction between the deserving and undeserving rich. The distinction is sound because there’s a proven a way to make a moral killing: improve a huge number of other people’s lives while capturing a tiny slice of the surplus value.
There is still suffering, but by all metrics, society suffers less today than it ever has in the history of mankind. That’s attributable, in large part, to the innovations of people who become billionaires, and get a tiny slice of the value they’re created, which is so huge that their 2% translates into vast wealth. Of course there’s still more to do to end suffering, but the unseemliness of the superrich is neither the problem nor the cure.
Fixing these policy failures might create a system that produces fewer billionaires. But that shouldn’t be the point. It might also produce more morally worthy 10-figure fortunes. That’s great, because we should be aiming to channel entrepreneurial energy into productive wealth creation that lifts us all up and away from the extraction of wealth through unjust rules that close off opportunity and deprive us of the blessings of innovation.
So why does Manjoo, not to mention Bernie, Liz and AOC, believe stifling innovation that lifts all of us is a good idea? Perhaps when one spends one’s time wallowing in misery, giving up all hope of becoming successful, it’s easier to focus blame outward on those who achieved wealth than to work harder, strive harder, think harder and achieve success on one’s own merits. After all, why bother to learn to fish when you can demand a billionaire give you a fish instead?
There are deserving rich and undeserving rich. There are deserving poor and undeserving poor. But from a macrocosmic view of the world, billionaires have been good for society, even if neither you nor I will ever be one. I don’t begrudge them their wealth. I just wish I was smart enough, and lucky enough, to have been one as well.