Letting small slivers of a population amass as much wealth as they can grab might not be such a hot idea after all.
Two decades into the 21st century, a half-century into an America growing ever more unequal, the notion that some people can become too rich is finally seeping into our mainstream political discourse.
On the Internet, “every billionaire represents a policy failure” has become a popular meme, thanks to the wit and energy of activists around Rep. Alexandria Olivia-Cortez, the dynamic new member of Congress from New York.
On the campaign hustings, “two cents” has become the most popular chant at rallies for White House hopeful Elizabeth Warren. The senator from Massachusetts has proposed an annual 2 percent wealth tax on fortunes over $50 million and a 3 percent levy on fortunes over $1 billion.
Senator Bernie Sanders, meanwhile, has just upped the tax-the-rich ante. Sanders first detailed an annual wealth tax proposal in 2017. His latest iteration of the wealth tax idea, announced earlier this week, calls for a set of graduated annual rates that go all the way up to 8 percent on accumulations of private wealth over $10 billion.
“I don’t think,” Sanders told the New York Times at his new plan’s release, “that billionaires should exist.”
This sense — the conviction that grand concentrations of private wealth endanger our common well-being — is deepening all around the world, so much so that the every-billionaire-a-policy-failure perspective now has a philosophic label: limitarianism.
“In a nutshell,” notes the philosopher Ingrid Robeyns, a key figure in Fair Limits, a team of egalitarian-minded scholars at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, “economic limitarianism holds the view that no one should hold surplus money.”
And what rates as surplus? Wealth “over and above what one needs for a fully flourishing life.”
Most societies already recognize the importance of setting a poverty line, Robeyns points out, a yardstick that defines the minimal resources necessary to sustain a decent existence. But we also need a riches line. A world where “no one would be above the riches line,” she holds, “would be a better world.”
Robeyns explores some of the reasons why in a paper published this past June that makes for an excellent introduction to limitarian thought. In the process, she takes on competing philosophical points of view that ignore the wealth of the wealthy and instead concentrate only on lifting up the worst off among us.
Just where exactly should a “riches line” sit? The limitarians at Utrecht and elsewhere in Europe don’t focus on any specific numbers. They consider the most crucial point “not where precisely the riches line can be drawn but whether the concept makes sense.” They’re pressing the debate on that concept — with an urgency that derives straight from the climate crisis.
Limitarians see climate change and questions of distributive justice as “deeply intertwined” and believe that limitarian thought can help us envision a “less unjust” and “ecologically more sustainable” world. Earlier this month, in a Guardian column, the widely read UK environmentalist George Monbiot gave their limitarian project a global platform.
Governments and economists, Monbiot points out, essentially base their entire world views on the assumption that only maximizing wealth matters. That dominant perspective has made the argument for leveling down grand fortune “perhaps the most blasphemous idea in contemporary discourse.”
But level down we must, counters Monbiot, or “inevitably demolish our life support systems.”
“Were the poor to live like the rich, and the rich to live like the oligarchs,” he sums up, “we would destroy everything.”
Today’s economies certainly do operate on a sky’s-the-limit basis, adds Utrecht University’s Robeyns. But down through the centuries, she reminds us, “thinkers from many corners of the world” have explained “why no one should become excessively rich” and “proposed economic institutions” that would prevent the amassing of grand private fortunes.
We need more thinking along those lines.
“Given the high levels of persistent poverty that the world is facing alongside the ecological crises,” as Robeyns puts it, “we can no longer afford to work with theories and normative frameworks that do not enable us to say that at some point one is having, taking, or consuming too much.”
Sam Pizzigati co-edits Inequality.org. His latest book: The Case for a Maximum Wage. Among his other books on maldistributed income and wealth: The Rich Don’t Always Win: The Forgotten Triumph over Plutocracy that Created the American Middle Class, 1900-1970 and Greed and Good: Understanding and Overcoming the Inequality that Limits Our Lives. Follow him at @Too_Much_Online.