The argument against billionaires

Photo: Filip Czech

Photo: Filip Czech

In mathematics, infinity is considered an abomination. If a mathematician gets the result of infinity she will nearly always assume that the result is wrong and that there is an error somewhere in her calculations.

In my opinion, economics should cultivate a similar aversion to extreme numbers for society to function in an orderly fashion.

I recently expressed an opinion on social media that billionaires shouldn’t be allowed to exist in society. Someone asked me why not? Here’s why.

A billion pounds is a lot of money. It is so much money that an individual would find it impossible to spend even a fraction of it in any meaningful way (we can explore the definition of ‘meaningful’ elsewhere). The choices left are to do nothing with the money or to spend it in a meaningless way (hey, how many luxury yachts can you sail in at any one time?) neither of which does much good.

The favourite neoliberalist argument is that anyone should be allowed to acquire as much money as they possibly can without limit. This argument relies on extreme capitalism – winner takes all. However, this position also requires belief in the reverse process – loser gives back everything and this clearly doesn’t happen in our society. The financial crash of 2008 demonstrated this. In that period, many private banks should have failed but they were given public funds to keep them in business. A government intervened for the good of the majority (a collapse of the economy was bad for everyone it reasoned). So if the government is there to limit the failures of financial institutions why doesn’t it also limit the successes of them? You can’t have private profits and socialized losses unless the system is dysfunctional.

They ‘earned’ it.

No entrepreneur made their fortune all by themselves. They didn’t build the roads that transported the goods; they didn’t educate the workforce that allowed logistics; they didn’t even make their own clothes that they went to work in. Society is a shared system. Individual members cooperate to make it work. The idea that one person had an original idea and single-handedly transformed that idea into a best-selling product is nonsense: chances are, their own education was provided to them for free. Thus, every successful person owes something to the society they belong to.

Say a billionaire wants to acquire yet more money (needless to say, at this level money is merely a numbers game for egomaniacs) and the easiest way for them to do that is to exploit oil fields in the Amazon rain forests, say. With their limitless resources they could pollute the environment with little cost to themselves to maximize their profits. And because they live elsewhere, they don’t need to care about the pollution. And even when their exploitation becomes so extreme that the earth is uninhabitable, they have enough funds to research the possibility of them blasting off in a rocket to Mars to escape the chaos. Is this acceptable?

Okay, I’m being facetious here (but only ever so slightly), the point I’m making is, money equals power. Say a billionaire wanted his own personal army – is that okay? If not, why? Then say they wanted nuclear weapons for their army – who or what is going to stop him? If countries come together to oppose the move then clearly they consider it unacceptable. Why? What’s the difference between a billionaire and a government? Would it have anything to do with perceived restraints on government decisions?

So let’s say the world gets its first trillionaire (remember, our system is winner takes all so we could end up with one person owning everything). That’s more money than the entire GDP of many countries. One person controlling this amount of money is essentially the equivalent of being a Roman emperor – unlimited power with no brake on anti-social behaviour. Ethics is the first thing to be abandoned in this scenario. How can that be good for a society?

It is incumbent on all governments to look after all the people that it governs. That means sharing the wealth to some extent. How hard would it be to devise a robust tax regime that was progressive with a cut-off point that reached a maximum tax rate of 100%? If an entrepreneur was genuinely concerned about ‘helping the world to connect and share’ then once they had reached a personal wealth of several hundred million (or whatever threshold was deemed acceptable) then they wouldn’t mind working for ‘nothing’ would they?

Even if a billionaire wasn’t an egotistical psychopath, and instead was a perfectly reasonable, responsible human being, they wouldn’t need to see homeless people in the richest cities in the world to remind them that society is unfair and needs balance. Remember, money has enormous economic power. Imagine Bill Gates pumping hundreds of millions of dollars into a charity based in an underdeveloped country. Imagine how that sudden influx of money is going to distort the delicate market structure in that economy. Even with good intentions, a billionaire making unilateral decisions can cause mayhem.

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