How much wealth is too much? The answer most people give is: significantly more than I have. If you’re on an average UK salary you’re probably among the world’s richest 10 per cent, and if you’re worth £530,000 or more—which around three million of us are—you’re a member of the exclusive 1 per cent club who hold nearly half the planet’s wealth. When we have much more than others, we think it’s our fair share; when we have much less, we see an egregious injustice. Millionaires have always evoked envy, but billionaires—not to mention multi-multi-billionaires like Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk—increasingly provoke indignation.
Inspired by Nietzsche, we could dismiss this as mere resentment. Wealth empowers, and those who lack it have an acute sense of their disempowerment. Nietzsche argued that Christianity’s veneration of the poor has given us a way of turning material disadvantage into spiritual advantage. If worldly strength can be reframed as wickedness, the weak can feel righteous rather than inferior.
The echo of Nietzschean disdain often rings around the libertarian argument on wealth inequality, which says that we have a right to the fruits of our labours—or that of our ancestors—and that to deny this is an affront to liberty. On this view, levels of taxation in modern states are already intolerably high.
The libertarian need not deny the fact that the distribution of wealth has little to do with merit or desert—something philosophers have reckoned with for centuries. In the 18th century, even the politically conservative David Hume could see that wealth depended very much on chance. But he still thought that “stability of possession” was so important for fruitful trade and a peaceful society that “fitness or suitableness ought never to enter into consideration, in distributing the properties of mankind”. In short, the argument is that a free and prosperous society requires strong property rights, including the right to keep one’s wealth. This, some argue, may result in an unjust distribution, but any attempt to impose divine fairness will result in a human hell—as various communist experiments have shown.
This argument would be more persuasive if wealth naturally flowed as unevenly as it currently does. The truth is rather that modern capitalism actively funnels cash to a small elite. Businesses rely on states educating their workforces, providing healthcare and topping up pay packets with benefits. Enterprise needs good infrastructure, as well as functioning legal systems to protect corporate rights. In short, the very possibility of being a billionaire is contingent on an obliging political and financial order.
The case for restricting extreme wealth therefore seems strong. Indeed, it could be argued that the onus of proof is on those who defend the existence of billionaires to show why they should be allowed to siphon off so many dollars. But, fairly or not, the burden of proof has been placed on those who argue that a wealth ceiling should be erected. One person who has risen to this challenge is the Belgian-Dutch political philosopher Ingrid Robeyns. She has made a strong case for “limitarianism”, which claims “no one should have more than an upper threshold of valuable goods”.
Whereas most modern political philosophy has been “theory-driven”—establishing general principles of justice and then applying them—Robeyns adopts a “problem-driven” approach, arguing that limitarianism addresses two pressing demands. First, the world must deal with numerous “unmet urgent needs”, such as poverty and climate change. She argues that “if there are interventions… that can mitigate unmet urgent needs and that require financial resources, the surplus money should be used to meet those needs”. And on any reasonable definition of “surplus money”, the excess wealth of billionaires fits the description.
Second, the possession of this surplus wealth by the super-rich poses a threat to the political equality that democracy requires. Massive wealth differentials are incompatible with a democratic society, since wealth skews power towards those who possess it and diminishes the political agency of those who lack it.
Limitarianism may not yet have caught on as a political buzzword, but it seems to be in tune with the cultural zeitgeist. There may be good pragmatic reasons to allow people to get rich, but these do not justify allowing the already rich to get even richer. The recent use of windfall taxes on energy companies has perhaps paved the way for acceptance of the broader principle that there is no fundamental right to unlimited earnings.
Democracies rightly start from a presumption of liberty, and only curtail it when there are strong and compelling justifications to do so. But a billionaire ban should not be viewed as an extreme measure by anyone who recognises that it is only possible to get extremely rich by extracting more wealth from society than you could ever create by yourself.
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