Tuesday, 18 April 2017
How Many Billionaires Should There Be?
Recently at a lunch gathering of the White Rock Philosophers, the topic of economic justice came up, which gave me an opportunity to ask one of my favorite questions: how many billionaires should exist in the world? One suggested answer was: as many as there are people who put in the work to earn their billions. Here is the best argument I know of to support this view:
1. In a capitalist system, each individual is free to compete in the marketplace for as much wealth as they can accumulate in accordance with law.
2. The individual is entitled to spend, save, or invest the money they earn any way they see fit.
3. Some individuals become billionaires or even multibillionaires in this system (after taxes).
4. They are entitled to 100% control of their wealth because they deserve it and because the law allows it.
5. There is no theoretical or legal limit to the number of individuals who might become billionaires.
6. Therefore, the number of billionaires that should exist is just the number that does exist at any given time.
My argument is for the contrary proposition: there should be zero billionaires in the world. Given the well-known facts about inequality in capitalist societies these days, I am tempted to suggest that this view is self-evident. To be blunt, to become a billionaire is to commit a moral crime against humanity. However, a philosopher is required to supply supporting argument for such views. Here is mine:
1. Inequality of wealth is inevitable in any economic system. It does not follow that any degree of inequality is morally justifiable.
2. People are roughly equal with respect to their basic needs: survival and safety, health, belonging, self-esteem, etc. (see A. Maslow's hierarchy of needs here).
3. In a just society, an inequality is justified only if it makes the least advantaged members better off than they would be if the inequality didn't exist. ("Better off" means 'better able to satisfy at least their basic needs.') *
4. The vast inequality represented in the ratio between the wealth of billionaires and the poor obviously does not make the poor better off than they would be if the vast inequality didn't exist; that is, if wealth were re-distributed in a way that satisfied every person's basic needs insofar as that is possible without degrading the social order in any significant degree.
5. A redistribution of wealth in advanced societies to accomplish the satisfaction of needs as specified in Step 4 would leave today's billionaires still very rich. (Economic justice does not require elimination of all inequality.)
6. If, after the redistribution, there were some leftover billionaires, their surplus wealth - the amount not required for them to enjoy a very high standard of living - should be taxed away to be spent on public works, healthcare, education, and cultural projects that have the potential to enhance the well-being of all the citizens.
7. This would result in the non-existence of billionaires which is what I have been arguing for - zero billionaires - exactly the number which should exist.
* John Rawls, A Theory of Justice.
Diagram of Abraham Maslow's Hierarchy of Human Needs. Notice that no stage of need satisfaction requires one to be super-rich. Maslow's scheme has stood the test of time fairly well, but it reflects a study of only one culture (western, USA) and probably needs revising in some ways. Nevertheless, the basic idea of a needs hierarchy of some sort in humans of every culture seems sound.