Here is a simple statement of principle that doesn’t get repeated enough: if you possess billions of dollars, in a world where many people struggle because they do not have much money, you are an immoral person. The same is true if you possess hundreds of millions of dollars, or even millions of dollars. Being extremely wealthy is impossible to justify in a world containing deprivation.
Even though there is a lot of public discussion about inequality, there seems to be far less talk about just how patently shameful it is to be rich. After all, there are plenty of people on this earth who die—or who watch their loved ones die—because they cannot afford to pay for medical care. There are elderly people who become homeless because they cannot afford rent. There are children living on streets and in cars, there are mothers who can’t afford diapers for their babies. All of this is beyond dispute. And all of it could be ameliorated if people who had lots of money simply gave those other people their money. It’s therefore deeply shameful to be rich. It’s not a morally defensible thing to be.
To take a U.S. example: white families in America have 16 times as much wealth on average as black families. This is indisputably because of slavery, which was very recent (there are people alive today who met people who were once slaves). Larry Ellison of Oracle could put his $55 billion in a fund that could be used to just give houses to black families, not quite as direct “reparations” but simply as a means of addressing the fact that the average white family has a house while the average black family does not. But instead of doing this, Larry Ellison bought the island of Lanai. (It’s kind of extraordinary that a single human being can just own the sixth-largest Hawaiian island, but that’s what concentrated wealth leads to.) Because every dollar you have is a dollar you’re not giving to somebody else, the decision to retain wealth is a decision to deprive others.
Note that this is a slightly different point than the usual ones made about rich people. For example, it is sometimes claimed that CEOs get paid too much, or that the super-wealthy do not pay enough in taxes. My claim has nothing to do with either of these debates. You can hold my position and simultaneously believe that CEOs should get paid however much a company decides to pay them, and that taxes are a tyrannical form of legalized theft. What I am arguing about is not the question of how much people should be given, but the morality of their retaining it after it is given to them.
Many times, defenses of the accumulation of great wealth depend on justifications for the initial acquisition of that wealth. The libertarian-ish philosopher Robert Nozick gave a well-known hypothetical that is used to challenge claims that wealthy people did not deserve their wealth: suppose millions of people enjoy watching Wilt Chamberlain play basketball. And suppose, Nozick wrote, that each of these people would happily give Wilt Chamberlain 25 cents for the privilege of watching him play basketball. And suppose that through the process of people paying Wilt Chamberlain, he ended up with millions of dollars, while each of his audience members had (willingly) sacrificed a quarter. Even though Wilt Chamberlain is now far richer than anyone else in the society, would anyone say that his acquisition of wealth was unjust?
Libertarians use this example to rebut attempts to say that the rich do not deserve their wealth. After all, they say, the process by which those rich people attained their wealth is totally consensual. We’d have to be crazy Stalinists to believe that I shouldn’t have the right to pay you a quarter to watch you play basketball. Why, look at Mark Zuckerberg. Nobody has to use Facebook. He is rich because people like the product he came up with. Clearly, his wealth is the product of his own labor, and nobody should deprive him of it. People on the right often defend wealth along these lines. I earned it, therefore it’s not unfair for me to have it.
But there is a separate question that this defense ignores: regardless of whether you have earned it, to what degree are you morally permitted to retain it? The question of getting and the question of keeping are distinct. As a parallel: if I come into possession of an EpiPen, and I encounter a child experiencing a severe allergic reaction, the question of whether I am obligated to inject the child is distinguishable from the question of whether I obtained the pen legitimately. It’s important to be clear about these distinctions, because we might answer questions about systems differently than we answer questions about individual behavior. (“I don’t hate capitalism, I just hate rich people” is a perfectly legitimate and consistent perspective.)
I therefore think there is a sort of deflection that goes on with defenses of wealth. If we find it appalling that there are so many rich people in a time of need, we are asked to consider questions of acquisition rather than questions of retention. The retention question, after all, is much harder for a wealthy person to answer. It’s one thing to argue that you got rich legitimately. It’s another to explain why you feel justified in spending your wealth upon houses and sculptures rather than helping some struggling people pay their rent or paying off a bunch of student loans or saving thousands of people from dying of malaria. There may be nothing unseemly about the process by which a basketball player earns his millions (we can debate this). But there’s certainly something unseemly about having those millions.
One of the reasons wealthy people rarely have to defend their choices is that “shaming the rich” is not really compatible with any of the predominating political perspectives. People on the right obviously believe that having piles of wealth is fine. Centrist Democrats can’t attack rich people for being rich because they’re increasingly a party for rich people. And socialists (this is the interesting case) tend to believe that questions about the morality of having wealth are relatively unimportant, because they are far more interested in how the state divides up wealth than in what individuals choose to do with it. As G.A. Cohen points out in If You’re an Egalitarian, How Come You’re So Rich?, Marxists have been concerned with eliminating capitalism generally, which has kept them from thinking about questions of the justice of people’s personal choices. After all, if the problem of inequality is systemic, and rich people do not really make choices but pursue their class interests, then asking whether it is moral for wealthy people to retain their wealth is both irrelevant (because individual decisions don’t affect the systemic problem) and incoherent (because the idea of a moral or immoral capitalist makes no sense in the Marxist framework). In fact, there is a certain leftist argument that giving away wealth in the form of charity is actually bad, because it allows capitalism to look superficially generous without actually altering the balance of power in the society. “The worst slave owners were those who were kind to their slaves, because they prevented the core of the system from being realized by those who suffered from it,” as Oscar Wilde ludicrously put it. (In their book Blueprints for a Sparkling Tomorrow, Nimni and Robinson parody this perspective by portraying two leftist academics who insist on being rude to servers in restaurants, on the grounds that being polite to them obscures the true brutality of class relations.)
But I think it is a mistake to avoid inquiring into the moral justifications for wealth. This is because I think individual decisions do matter, because if I am an extremely wealthy man I could be helping a lot of people who I am choosing not to help. And for those people, at least, it makes a difference when a billionaire decides to retain their wealth rather than rid themselves of it.
Of course, when you start talking about whether it is moral to be rich, you end up heading down some difficult logical paths. If I am obligated to use my wealth to help people, am I not obligated to keep doing so until I am myself a pauper? Surely this obligation attaches to anyone who consumes luxuries they do not need, or who has some savings that they are not spending on malaria treatment for children. But the central point I want to make here is that the moral duty becomes greater the more wealth you have. If you end up with a $50,000 a year or $100,000 a year salary, we can debate what amount you should spend on helping other people. But if you earn $250,000 or 1 million, it’s quite clear that the bulk of your income should be given away. You can live very comfortably on $100,000 or so and have luxury and indulgence, so anything beyond is almost indisputably indefensible. And the super-rich, the infamous “millionaires and billionaires”, are constantly squandering resources that could be used to create wonderful and humane things. If you’re a billionaire, you could literally open a hospital and make it free. You could buy up a bunch of abandoned Baltimore rowhouses, do them up, and give them to families. You could help make sure no child ever had to go without lunch.
We can define something like a “maximum moral income” beyond which it’s obviously inexcusable not to give away all of your money. It might be 5o thousand. Call it 100, though. Per person. With an additional 50 allowed per child. This means two parents with a child can still earn $250,000! That’s so much money. And you can keep it. But everyone who earns anything beyond it is obligated to give the excess away in its entirety. The refusal to do so means intentionally allowing others to suffer, a statement which is true regardless of whether you “earned” or “deserved” the income you were originally given. (Personally, I think the maximum moral income is probably much lower, but let’s just set it here so that everyone can agree on it. I do tend to think that moral requirements should be attainable in practice, and a $30k threshold would actually require people experience some deprivation whereas a $100k threshold indisputably still leaves you with an incredibly comfortable lifestyle better than almost any other had by anyone in history.)
Of course, wealthy people do give away money, but so often in piecemeal and self-interested and foolish ways. They’ll donate to colleges with huge endowments to get needless buildings built and named after them. David Geffen will pay to open a school for the children of wealthy university faculty, and somehow be praised for it. Mark Zuckerberg will squander millions of dollars trying to fix Newark’s schools by hiring $1000-a-day-consultants. Brad Pitt will try to build homes for Katrina victims in New Orleans, but will insist that they’re architecturally cutting-edge and funky looking, instead of just trying to make as many simple houses as possible. Just as the rich can’t be trusted to spend their money well generally, they’re colossally terrible at giving it away. This is because so much is about self-aggrandizement, and “philanthropy” is far more about the donor than the donee. Furthermore, if you’re a multi-billionaire, giving away $1 billion is morally meaningless. If you’ve got $3 billion, and you give away 1, you’re still incredibly wealthy, and thus still harming many people through your retention of wealth. You have to get rid of all of it, beyond the maximum moral income.
The central point, however, is this: it is not justifiable to retain vast wealth. This is because that wealth has the potential to help people who are suffering, and by not helping them you are letting them suffer. It does not make a difference whether you earned the vast wealth. The point is that you have it. And whether or not we should raise the tax rates, or cap CEO pay, or rearrange the economic system, we should all be able to acknowledge, before we discuss anything else, that it is immoral to be rich. That much is clear.