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Billionaires in many ways run the world. They lead the biggest companies. They own most of the media. A billionaire currently inhabits the White House. How many billionaires are there? By one count, there were 2,153 globally in 2019. They are worth a combined $8.7 trillion. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos alone has a $131 billion fortune, making him the world’s richest person.
To some, these lofty numbers are impressive, even admirable. But a growing movement among progressive politicians is starting to question whether it makes sense for so few people to have so much wealth. The candidates in the Democratic presidential primary offer a variety of policies that would diminish the fortunes of the richest people in America, redistributing that wealth among all citizens. Some proposals are so transformative, they might make billionaires extinct.
Why there’s debate:
When Sen. Bernie Sanders says “billionaires should not exist,” it might sound extreme to some. The real extreme, Sanders and his fellow democratic socialists argue, is that a small number of people possess more wealth than half of the world’s population combined. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has said the current system, which has allowed for growing levels of income inequality, “doesn’t make moral sense.”
Billionaires don’t just hold a disproportionate share of the world’s wealth, critics argue, they also use their power to perpetuate the divide between the rich and the poor. This outsize influence of the superrich is how the U.S. ended up with a system that allows billionaires to pay a lower tax rate than working-class people.
Defenders of billionaires say rich people shouldn’t be criticized for their success. Limiting the opportunity for individual wealth, some argue, would prevent the type of entrepreneurship that drove billionaires like Bezos, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg to start companies that have created millions of jobs.
Many billionaires also pour tremendous amounts of money into philanthropic initiatives that are making progress on problems that governments have struggled with. Bill and Melinda Gates, for example, have reportedly given away more than $45.5 billion to improve global health, promote education and fight poverty.
A lot needs to happen before billionaires would need to start worrying about their fortunes, at least in the next few years. A progressive Democrat like Sanders or Sen. Elizabeth Warren would have to win the Democratic primary, then beat Donald Trump in the general election. Even then, Congress would have to get behind massive changes to the tax code. Polling suggests that Americans are largely behind many of the individual policies that would reduce the wealth of billionaires, but are against the idea of eliminating them entirely.
Billionaires shouldn’t exist
Concentrated wealth is bad for democracy
“Dramatic inequality in wealth means dramatic inequality in terms of political power means a political system unresponsive to what most people want. Wealth inequality, in other words, is an anti-democratic force.” — Annie Lowrey, the Atlantic
It’s immoral for a few people to horde wealth when many people are struggling
“Billionaires should not exist — at least not in their present numbers, with their current globe-swallowing power, garnering this level of adulation, while the rest of the economy scrapes by.” — Farhad Manjoo, New York Times
Billionaires didn’t earn their wealth on their own
“No one earns a billion dollars, but hierarchical economic structures and a skewed political system ensure some nevertheless acquire it because of the property they own. A billion dollars, let alone the over $100 billion amassed by Jeff Bezos, is not a reward proportionate to someone’s social contribution. It’s institutionalized theft, plain and simple.” — Luke Savage, Jacobin
Abolishing billionaires shouldn’t be the goal, but it may be a side effect of an equitable society
“Perhaps a way to cut through the murk would be to change the question: Once we’ve made the changes necessary to create a truly just society, would billionaires still exist? If we made a world where opportunity is abundant and prosperity is shared, would the rejiggering of resources and money flows still leave room for billionaires to become billionaires? I think it’s safe to assume the answer is ‘no.’” — Jeff Spross, the Week
The effects of billionaire philanthropy are overstated
“If all the billionaires were in fact giving all their money away to charity there’d be no billionaire wealth to tax, and thus no wealth tax debate except in a totally theoretical sense. But that’s obviously not the actual situation.” — Vox co-founder Matthew Yglesias
The founders understood the corrupting power of concentrated wealth
“America’s first political theorists took these truths to be self-evident: that a person could not exercise political liberty if he did not possess a modicum of economic autonomy, and that disparities in wealth inevitably produced disparities of political power.” — Eric Levitz, New York
Billionaires deserve to keep their wealth
The goal of becoming wealthy drives innovation
“Saying wealth accumulation stagnates innovation bucks reality. The prospect of wealth is the antidote to economic stagnation, not its cause. Sitting still, betting on old ways lasting forever, causes stagnation.” — Tim Mullaney, MarketWatch
Billionaires create benefits for everyone else
“When we let billionaires become billionaires, they employ hundreds of thousands of people and create trillions of dollars of wealth for the economy overall. When we let billionaires stay billionaires, even the most undeserving of them keep gobs of cash in investments, growing the economy for everyone as they sleep.” — Tiana Lowe, Washington Examiner
There’s nothing immoral about being wealthy
“Maybe billionaires should pay higher taxes, or at least their estates should. We can have that debate. But their existence isn’t a sign of capitalist immorality. In America, at least, it’s a sign of economic vibrancy.” — James Pethokoukis, the Week
Many billionaires use their power to defend democracy
“Other democracies envy the United States for this vibrant, independent, thickly muscled web of institutions and its check on government overreach. And these institutions would not exist but for the generosity of those billionaires and their millionaire fellows.” — Fred Hiatt, Washington Post
Taxing billionaires out of existence is a slippery slope
“It’s a slippery slope. First, the billionaires are targeted, then the rich. Soon, it will be the middle class. After a while, there will be no one left to tax.” — Jack Kelly, Forbes
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Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: Getty Images