AS I write this piece, there are 2,604 billionaires in the world. The 26 richest people in the world own more wealth than the bottom 50% of the entire population, and the richest person in the world, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, now holds over 128 billion dollars in wealth. To put this into perspective, Mr. Bezos could buy every team in the NFL and still have $36 billion left to spend, which would only make him the 28th richest man in the world. Meanwhile, the World Bank estimated that 8.6% of the world population lives with $1.90 a day—a salary so low that one would take 185 million years to acquire Mr. Bezos’ wealth. And if that isn’t enough for you, there are also 860 million people without access to electricity and 2.5 billion who lack access to improved sanitation. The difference between the richest and the poorest is, put plainly, shocking.
Some politicians, like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, have reacted to this level of inequality by arguing that billionaires should not even exist in the first place. However, if you’re not a progressive, you likely disagree with what they have to say. But looking at the problem by focusing on freedom and power might change your perspective. While many have defended billionaires through economics, now is the time to bring a more political argument into the discussion.
The Wall Street Defense
Let’s begin with the economic, or rather, the “Wall Street” defense of billionaires. A professional banker would certainly argue that our billionaire friends have provided a large amount of value to the world. Billionaires, he would argue, are only paid because they are creating products and services people want to buy. “They are just meeting demand with innovation. It’s basic economics! Moreover,” he continues, “billionaires have worked hard to achieve their wealth. They deserve some recognition!”
“And by the way,” he says, “philanthropy is pretty popular amongst the top earners! The likes of Bill Gates and Warren Buffett have made significant efforts to make the world a better place.” Our fellow banker argues that the problem is not inequality itself, but some people lacking the minimal economic conditions to live a decent life. We should not focus on attacking billionaires, he pontificates, but on enhancing the living conditions of the poorest—something that billionaires’ philanthropy is already doing. “You see,” he says, “you are not considering how to make the world better for the poor!”
What our friend misses, however, is that the issue is not just about inequality. It is a political issue that has deeper roots than economic differences.
It’s About Freedom!
With all due respect to our banker friend, we cannot let billionaires off the hook just yet. Even in a society where poverty is a long-forgotten nightmare, there is still reason to worry about large concentrations of wealth. You do not need to be a socialist to shrug when you hear that billionaires own more wealth than one can even fathom. Even if you agree with most of the Wall Street Defense—that a billionaire’s productivity outweighs the inequality he engenders—there is another angle to consider. The real problem with billionaires is not one of equality alone, but of freedom. Blindly supporting billionaires can slowly evolve into a disregard of freedom, the core value in liberal societies today.
Modern democracies pride themselves in respecting liberty and self-determination above all else, but in reality they fail to provide them at a basic level. There is a fundamental distinction between having the right to be free and having the tools to exercise such freedom. As Phillip Pettit argues, being free is not the same as being free from domination. For instance, every American citizen is free to run for president if they are over the age of 35. However, not every American citizen can truly run for president. A child born in a low-income neighborhood in Chicago will likely lack the opportunity to attain a good education, making it almost impossible to run for the most coveted office in the world. Just by virtue of their upbringing, millions of American citizens cannot exercise their right to run for president.
But how do billionaires fit into this picture? Just as some are limited by the neighborhoods they are born into, or the family that raises them, wealth inequalities limit people’s ability to fulfill their goals. Although it may come as a surprise to our banker friend, billionaires and their economic power undermine the liberal values that modern democracies hold so dear.
Assume for a second that you are applying for college. All of your life, you have dreamed of going to Bezos University, the most prestigious university in the world. Decision day comes and you open your email to discover you got into Bezos’ incoming freshman class! You have never experienced joy like this before, but all of a sudden, you get a second email. A certain billionaire (let’s call him Mr. Gold) has asked his secretary to contact you after you got in. You see, Mr. Gold’s son also wants to go to Bezos, but he did not make the cut. So Mr. Gold offers you a deal: he will give you one million dollars in return for your spot. Mr. Gold’s lawyers have checked everything, and this is perfectly legal. No one will get in trouble! And that is a lot of money—as a matter of fact, it is more money than you have seen in your entire life. It’s money you could use to help pay your parents’ debt, or your grandparents’ treatment for COVID-19. Faced with this decision, you yield and sell your spot at Bezos University, regardless of your preferences.
Although some might see this as a fair exchange, it is important to recognize the inherent power imbalance that comes with it. You were coerced to act against your own desires because of an economic transaction. Sure, you had the right to refuse Mr. Gold’s offer, but then your parents would have drowned in debt for the next couple of years, or your grandparents might have passed away. Meanwhile, that million dollars meant nothing to Mr. Gold. While you have the right to act freely, a billionaire also has the right to buy off your freedom.
At the end of the day, Bernie Sanders’ views on the existence of billionaires may be too extreme for most of us. However, it is important to reconsider the lens through which we view our friend Mr. Bezos and the other 2,603 billionaires. It is not just a matter of economics, but of power. A society that gives citizens the right to be free must also grant them the possibility of exercising their freedom. If a person can come around and buy out your freedom for a given sum of money, our social contract has failed to provide the rights it promised. Our world is one of inequalities and power imbalances which, if left without attention, will give the wealthiest 0.01% of us the ability to wipe out freedom from existence. The point is not just to eliminate billionaires, but to fight for freedom.
The right has spent most of its time worrying about the power of the state. Perhaps it is time for it to worry about the power of billionaires as well.