It’s Time to Abolish Billionaires
The existence of billionaires is a symptom of a manifestly unjust society that cannot be justified to those who lose out.
Yesterday it was reported that Jeff Bezos increased his wealth by $13 billion in single day. Just this increase in his wealth is 30 times more than The Queen’s £350 million net worth. His current net worth ($189 billion) is just a little bit less than the entire economy of Greece ($218 billion) and according to a recent estimate, he makes $2,489 per second. This means that if he walked past a suitcase full of money, it would be barely worth his time to pick it up.
To say that he has ‘earned’ this money would be an abuse of language, because to earn something is to morally deserve to have it. It entails acquiring something in a way that could be justified to those who lose out. Such a defence cannot be mounted because it’s impossible to justify an institutional arrangement that allows this outcome to happen.
This is not to say that I don’t think Jeff Bezos worked hard. I don’t deny that he did and that his entrepreneurial activity has led to the growth of a company that, despite its faults, makes our lives as consumers easier. I accept the argument that inequalities of outcome are required to motivate people to engage in productive employment and to innovate for profit. What we need to question is how large these inequalities need to be in order to motivate the positive, entrepreneurial activity that we all want to see, whilst limiting the vast inequalities that create disparities of power and influence that are destructive of liberal democratic norms.
We also need to question how much of the wealth that is accumulated by the rich can be defended by appealing to an argument about their entrepreneurial endeavour. After all, a large amount of wealth is acquired in ways that you can’t even begin to defend using the argument that the money is earned. Many people inherit their wealth, others acquire it through corruption and nepotism, some simply invest their money to acquire a passive income from the efforts of others. In all of these cases it is difficult to argue that the money is morally deserved and yet our system does precious little to limit this form of acquisition and these undeserving rich are often ironed out of the story when the right seek to defend the existence of billionaires. Instead the focus of those who defend inequality is exclusively on the ‘wealth creators,’ as if the existence of the idle rich didn’t exist.
It is a strong moral intuition, shared by almost everyone, that departures from an equal distribution need to be justified. If I brought a cake into one of my lessons and asked my class how the cake ought to be distributed, I’d expect a fairly easy consensus to emerge that it should be divided equally. Similarly, when we play games, we expect that the rules are fair and that people stick to them. If you and I played chess together and I always insisted on playing white, you’d eventually complain that getting to go first every time gives me too big an advantage. This suggests an account of justice that focuses on ensuring that the rules of the game are fair and where departures from equality stand in need of justification.
A philosophical justification of the above intuition is given by the political philosopher, John Rawls. He asks us to imagine that we are tasked with agreeing a set of rules and principles for our society. But, to make our deliberation fair and impartial, we are temporarily asked to adopt a particular perspective. He calls this perspective the original position and it involved us adopting what he calls the veil of ignorance. From behind the veil of ignorance, we temporarily forget who we are. We don’t know our socioeconomic position, our race, our gender, our sexual orientation or our religion. We are therefore forced to deliberate about the rules we adopt as a society without knowing our own position within that society. We don’t know if we are rich or poor, gay or straight, white or black, male or female. We could be anyone — including someone right at the bottom of our society.
The veil of ignorance allows us to look at our society in an impartial way, removing the prejudices that might lead us to advocate policies that are in our own self-interest. Instead, Rawls argues that we would begin to pay particular attention to the least advantaged in our society, because, stripped of our knowledge about our social position, we would worry that we might be in that position ourselves.
This perspective is powerful because it forces us to reflect about injustice and to take seriously the perspective of those who lose out in our system. It forces us to design rules and institutions that limit inequalities that cannot be justified to those who end up at the bottom. This doesn’t preclude inequalities, it just means that any inequalities that do exist would stand in need of moral justification. In such a society, Jeff Bezos would probably still be rich, but he almost certainly wouldn’t be a billionaire and he definitely wouldn’t have almost as much wealth as the entire economy of Greece.
If this doesn’t convince you, Rawls has a second argument that might. In this second argument he attacks the idea that we deserve the unequal gains that flow from our talent and our effort. He argues that our talent, our ability and even our capacity to work hard are things that we can claim no credit for because they are largely a product of having good genes and being being brought up in fortunate social circumstances:
It seems to be one of the fixed points of our considered judgements that no one deserves his place in the distribution of native endowments, any more than one deserves one’s initial starting place in society. The assertion that a man deserves the superior character that enables him to make the effort to cultivate his abilities is equally problematic; for his character depends in large part upon fortunate family and social circumstances for which he can claim no credit. The notion of desert seems not to apply in these cases.
According to this second argument, Jeff Bezos’ unequal wealth cannot be justified by referring to his talent or his capacity to work hard, because these qualities are morally arbitrary. He didn’t deserve to have good genes, good parents or to grow up in a good neighbourhood and so he needs to find another argument if he is to claim that he earned and therefore deserves his unequal wealth.
This argument usually goes down like a bucket of cold sick, because it attacks something that many people believe intuitively — that they did in fact earn their money and position in society by working hard and by exercising their talent and ability. But, if this was true, our most elite universities would be full of students who work hard and have talent, irrespective of their social circumstances. In fact, if you take Oxford University as an example, only 62.3% of students at this institution went to a state school, despite the fact that 93% of schools in the UK are state schools — strongly supporting the argument that Rawls articulates.
Taken together, Rawls provides a powerful challenge to those who would seek to justify inequality, challenging them to articulate a defence of the status-quo that can justify the inequalities that do exist to those who lose out. The fact that such a defence cannot be mounted is a sad indictment of our society.