For more than a month now, the well-deserved downfall of Harvey Weinstein has been dominating news cycles. The ensuing public discussion—about the way famous or even semi-famous men use the shield of public respect to get away with grotesque behavior in their private lives—has led to the unmasking of other serial sexual offenders and harassers. These accused public figures are a bipartisan bunch, all told, but there are a distressing number of “left” people among them: senators, comedians, editors of major left news outlets, popular far-left writers. Sexual assault is inexcusable under all circumstances, but there’s something especially chilling about left people, who talk a good public game on feminism, suddenly being revealed as individuals who think about women as sub-human means to their sexual ends.
But there’s another thing that all these men happen to have in common that is worth discussing. These are all lefties who mistreated women. They’re all also lefties who are immensely rich.
In Weinstein’s case, the “immensely rich” part was abundantly obvious from the beginning: Weinstein is emblematic of a kind of superficial Hollywood activism where people express support for certain liberal causes in a bid to generate a positive public image, or to alleviate the creeping sense of guilt brought about by an unnaturally lavish lifestyle. Everyone knows about this phenomenon, it’s not shocking. But what about the editor of NPR, a major news outlet that has a role in shaping left discourse? We could perhaps assume that he takes his politics a bit more seriously: why, then, is he holding on to so much cash? And what on earth are we supposed to make of left-wing writers who self-describe as communists, and turn out to live in mansions?
By making this comparison, I’m not trying to draw any connection between “being rich” and “committing sexual assault,” or even “lying to the public (or deceiving yourself) about your views on women’s issues” and “lying to the public (or deceiving yourself) about your economic progressivism,” implying that one thing is likely to lead to the other. What I am trying to say is that talk is cheap, and these recent events in the news have illustrated the extent to which it’s risky to take people’s stated views at face value, without a rigorous interrogation of how they actually live their daily lives. Clearly, we don’t believe that someone who calls themselves a feminist is a real feminist if they then go on to sexually mistreat women. Why, then, do we believe that someone who says they’re against income inequality really is an economic progressive, if we see that they’re holding on tight to their own wealth?
Current Affairs has written extensively about why it’s wrong to be rich. Regardless of what your precise political affiliation is, or what you think constitutes appropriate forms of government intervention, if you (1) think that human suffering is bad, (2) have the power to alleviate some of it by giving up money you don’t otherwise need, and (3) choose not to give up your money, that’s pretty clearly immoral. This species of miserliness is even more egregious when it’s perpetrated by people on the left, because the whole point of the left is that we believe in the alleviation of suffering, and the building of a world where everyone has the capacity to live a good, dignified life. If you say that you believe in economic justice, that you want a world where wealth is more evenly spread out amongst people who need it to live, but you are not willing to even give up your own surplus wealth, then you are clearly a hypocrite. “Hypocrite,” of course, is a very harsh-sounding pejorative: I don’t mean to say here that I think that rich lefties are somehow irredeemably awful. There may be all kinds of factors outside a person’s control that prevent that person from seeing their own moral position clearly, and we shouldn’t hastily assume that we are morally superior to whole swathes of people about whose inner lives we know nothing. When I say “hypocrite,” I merely mean it in the literal sense: that one’s actual behavior is at odds, consciously or unconsciously, with one’s stated principles. And, of course, since we are all fallible, we are all hypocrites at different times.
Hypocrisy places an individual in moral peril, of course, but it also creates strategic problems for larger political movements. If someone’s behavior is at odds with their principles, it could be that they are lying about their principles in order to achieve some ulterior goal. Or it could be that they genuinely believe themselves to be sincere in their principles, but are too morally weak, or too blinkered by the prevailing self-exculpatory groupthink of whatever social milieu they are embedded in, to put those principles into action. How do you build trust and solidarity in a movement where conduct is divorced from principle to such an extent that you can’t tell whether people are good actors, bad actors, or weak actors? How do I know whether a rich leftie is a cynical liar looking for some kind of adulation (or, worse still, some kind of virtuous smokescreen for bad behavior), or a selfish, unreflective, and/or indecisive person, who may support my goals up to a point, but will very likely throw me under the bus the minute they actually have to make some kind of significant sacrifice? I think this seriously hampers the left’s development as a serious political movement, and I don’t see any way to solve it except by insisting—especially of our leaders and spokespeople, but also of each other, as ordinary rank-and-file lefties—that everybody on the left make a positive commitment to living very modestly, and giving up whatever wealth they can spare to help people who are suffering and struggling.
This is not some kind of extremist position. We simply need to think to ourselves: “in an ideal world of equitably and sustainably-apportioned resources across the entire globe, how big would my personal share actually be?” We can’t calculate the figure with much exactitude, there being too many factors and not enough reliable data in play, but it seems safest to assume that we would all have to live fairly simply. People are very quick to blame “systems” for the malapportionment of wealth, and obviously, legal and political structures that are outside our immediate control, and very difficult to change, do play a significant role in perpetuating injustice. But there are some things that are within our control: how we use the money we have, what parts of our lifestyle we deem to be “necessities,” how much we are willing to do on to help others on a voluntary and interpersonal level. If we on the left cannot even make decisions in our personal lives that reflect our values, how can we possibly trust ourselves (and ask others to trust us) to make good decisions for our cities, states, and the country at large, if we ever secure real political power? Ideally, the same values that guide us at the ballot box, in our organizing strategies, or in the rhetoric we produce and repeat, ought also to guide us in our personal choices and our daily interactions with other people. Our political opinions have no moral weight on their own, and expressing good principles has no meaning if we don’t actually live according to them.
I have noted that some people on the left don’t put much stock in charitable giving, believing this to be a poor substitute for revolutionary changes that will make our economy inherently equitable by some structural means. I do agree that, for example, the tack taken by some “effective altruists” of working on Wall Street and donating most of their money to charity has some inbuilt ethical problems: I am not saying that people who do this are “unethical,” but if the way in which you earn your money is contributing to serious systemic problems, that is an ethical consideration separate from, and not necessarily cured by, the fact that you then donate the money. (Just as you can’t make up for going around stomping on kittens by giving part of your income to the ASPCA.)
Nonetheless, I strongly believe that the premise that charitable giving is inherently worthless is wrong, for at least three reasons:
1) Massive economic reforms are not here yet, and we shouldn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. You can do a lot of good by giving your excess money to people who do not have enough money. This can always take the form of direct cash transfers, which takes out the middleman and allows the person receiving the money the greatest level of control over how it’s spent; but there are some parts of the world where you need geographic access and a high level of logistical coordination to deliver lifesaving aid, and that’s where charities and NGOs are hard to dispense with, whatever their flaws.
2) We should be skeptical that anybody who is not willing to give up their personal wealth is genuinely committed to economic reforms on a macro level. The presence of these moral ciphers on the left weakens us strategically.
3) The most carefully-crafted system is always corruptible by bad-faith and incompetent human actors, so even in a world where reasonably effective economic reforms have been put into place, a prevailing societal ethos of generosity, compassion, and self-sacrifice is absolutely necessary to keep things going on the right course. The sooner we start cultivating that ethos, the better.
Obviously, the people who have the least to lose in immediate material terms by giving up wealth are the extremely rich: people, let’s say, who are making $250,000 a year or more. The very richest of the rich in this country are overwhelmingly Republican, but there’s still a lot of money in the hands of rich Democrats, who have wielded outsize control over the party, due to our country’s toxic lobbying and campaign finance culture. Consequently, the preference of 99% of voters have a near-zero impact on policy outcomes. Bernie Sanders’s campaign gives us some degree of hope that we can reduce this monied influence by winning elections through a combination of crowdsourced small donations and grassroots organizing that is galvanized by genuinely compelling political ideas. It remains to be seen whether this tactic will be enough to win, of course, as opposed to “make a surprisingly good showing against wealthier, better-connected opponents,” which is all that’s been proven so far. But if we can manage to win elections—if we were no longer beholden to the extremely rich for campaign funds, and thus had no need to flatter them and try to make them feel good about themselves—we would be in a much better position to exhort them to give up their money. I would very much like to see left politicians telling their rich, left-leaning constituents in states like California, New York, and Connecticut that, in order to truly live out your commitment to economic justice, you need to give up not just a lot of money, or even half your money, but as much money as you can possibly spare, to people who are suffering. For some rich people, surrounded constantly by other rich people who make similarly meager, performative donations to soothe their consciences, this may be a demand that nobody in their lives has ever actually made of them before. Who knows—maybe some of them would actually do it! Maybe some of them wouldn’t do it right away, but could be eventually be persuaded to do so. Maybe some of them would never actually do it in full, but would slowly raise their personal standard for what constituted generous giving, as retaining personal wealth became increasingly associated with Scroogelike stinginess in the public imagination. And, of course, some rich “Democrats” would no doubt refuse to make any changes whatsoever—and then, at least, we’d know for sure that we ought not to trust them.
But Democratic donors aren’t the only people who should be taking a hard look at their bank accounts, and their consciences. What about the commentators, the thought-leaders, the organizers, and—perhaps most importantly—the politicians of the left? Let’s take two of the most beloved and principled figures on the left today: Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. I like many of their ideas; I like the straightforward manner in which they address the public; I very much want to believe that they are honest, genuine people who would govern effectively and honorably in positions of greater leadership. And perhaps they would. But let’s be perfectly frank: although they talk a big game about helping the little guy, both Sanders and Warren are pretty damn rich themselves. Warren’s net worth is estimated to be $3.7 million at minimum, and possibly as high $8.75 million. Her home in Cambridge, Massachusetts is worth $1.9 million. Sanders owns three homes, and his net worth, though low by Congressional standards, is very high by any ordinary person’s standards: in addition to the value of his homes, he’s estimated to be worth about $800,000. Now, extravagant real estate holdings aside—I’m not sure there’s any excuse for that, honestly—these numbers don’t tell us much by themselves. After all, your income figure doesn’t reflect how much you spend on people other than yourself: it could be that you have a net worth of $800,000 but are giving most of it away. However, insofar as charitable deductions on tax returns is a proxy for overall generosity, Sanders and Warren look pretty disappointing. Sanders and his wife had an income of $200,000 in 2014, and only indicated $8350 in charitable contributions; that means they gave away about 4% of a huge annual income. Elizabeth Warren and her husband, meanwhile, made $2.5 million between 2009 and 2011, and apparently only gave 2.8% of that staggering sum to charity. Now, maybe this too isn’t the whole picture—maybe Warren and Sanders didn’t report all their charitable giving, maybe they give a substantial amount of money to worthwhile organizations that don’t qualify as “charities” because of their political advocacy, maybe they’re supporting multiple friends or family members with serious health problems. But at the very least, shouldn’t we insist on some kind of explanation from politicians who appear to be so astonishingly ungenerous on paper?
Along these lines, I think that left voters should start insisting that their representatives live more like the people they’re purporting to serve—after all, 50% of households in the country live on less than $53,719 a year. I recognize that many Congressional representatives may not be quite able to escape the necessity of having two residences, since they need to split their time between D.C. and their constituency, but beyond that, I don’t see why Congresspeople need to live any differently from the average person. Having modest-living and, wherever circumstances allow, generous-giving representatives is important for two reasons. One is the issue of trust I’ve already discussed: such a lifestyle demonstrates that politicians who purport to care about income inequality are actually living by their principles, and thus that they are people we might actually be able to trust to enact meaningful economic reforms. The second reason is that politicians will actually govern better if their lifestyles are closer to those of the populations they serve. Voting records already seem to indicate that a Congressperson’s ever having had a blue-collar job in their life—which, since pretty much nobody these days is elected directly from a blue-collar job into a Congressional seat, is the only statistic it’s reasonable to try to measure—is a strong predictor of how they’ll vote on labor issues: stronger than geography, education, or even party. That seems like a pretty significant indicator that experience and lifestyle affects lawmaking behaviors. Now, obviously, a politician who voluntarily lives on a smaller budget isn’t directly replicating the life circumstances even of a constituent whose income is that same amount, because the politician almost certainly has a safety net that that constituent lacks, and thus doesn’t have many of the attendant anxieties that go along with a lower income. But a modest-living politician will indubitably have a better idea of how far real money actually goes, and what’s actually reasonable to expect of people, than the out-of-touch millionaires who currently dominate our legislature. We should hold our representatives to account for their hypocrisy, demanding that they demonstrate more solidarity with the poor, through both their manner of living and their manner of giving.
But of course, as the old Biblical adage has it, we shouldn’t go plucking splinters out of other people’s eyes until we’ve yanked the beams out of our own. If we are going to be hard on our leaders, we must also be hard on ourselves. There is a temptation, of course, to look at people we believe are much worse than ourselves (and who knows, perhaps they are!) and think that if we’re not as bad as them, we are in good moral standing. But that’s nonsense. The gap between ourselves and our neighbors is irrelevant, morally speaking: the only appropriate metric is the gap between our capacities and our actions, which is something only we ourselves truly know, and which we must regularly consult our own consciences about.
By global standards, most of us in the U.S. are pretty rich, and I’ll wager that some of Current Affairs’s illustrious readers may even be rich relative to the U.S. population generally. Many people struggle simply to survive and make ends meet, and those people, of course, shouldn’t be expected to give generously to others (though they often do: people making less than $25,000 report donating an average of 12.5% of their income to charity: no higher income bracket has a more generous figure.) For those of us who aren’t exactly struggling, we should always ask ourselves if we ought to be doing more. If we have more money than we need for our subsistence and our other non-discretionary month-to-month expenses—bearing in mind that most people in the world, and many people in our country, do not have anything left over—we should be thinking carefully about whether we’re using that surplus morally. That’s not to say that everyone needs to be some kind of sackcloth-and-ashes ascetic—though it’s a tricky question, I usually think there’s some truth to the idea that denying ourselves even small comforts just makes us miserable, and less energized to be kind and patient with others. But if the monthly amount we spend on recreation or unnecessary purchases is greater than the monthly amount we give away to people in dire need of assistance, that’s the first ominous sign that we are not living up to our values. We also should be paying attention to how much money we’re putting in savings. Saving money against the possibility of bad health—the likelihood of which increases as we age—or other sudden catastrophes is prudent, of course, but there’s a point at which “saving” becomes “hoarding.” Given that many people desperately need help now, how much money am I justified in laying aside against the possibility that I or my loved ones might need it in the future? I don’t think this is the sort of thing one can put a hard figure on, because the interplay of risk factors for different families is so complex, but we should at least recognize that saving money for the future is not an unambiguous moral good.
And then, of course, there are the larger, life-decision questions, which a particular species of well-educated, successful coastal leftie is almost always bad at answering: do I really need to live in this neighborhood? Do I need to own this car? Does my child really need to go to that school? We should be honest about why we have made the choices we’ve made: is it because we feel the need to maintain a certain social status? Because we think our families should be insulated from any possibility of harm? Because we think our children deserve opportunities that other children in our city do not have? These arguments are pervasive, and seductive—and directly contradictory to left values. It’s not unusual to succumb to them, but once we realize we’ve done so, we must be stern with ourselves, and take immediate steps to bring ourselves back into alignment with what we say we believe. It’s easy to try to insulate ourselves by blaming inequality on “systems,” but most systems are produced, or buttressed by, individual choices, for which the individual bears moral responsibility.
I would like to see an emergent egalitarian left that is honest, warm, generous, and unpretentious, a left that refuses to wait on a coming revolution or a Platonic ideal of a policy solution to rectify those economic inequalities that are already in our power to mitigate. We could bring a better future closer this very minute, by daring each other to be less selfish, less cowardly, and more loving.