There is much to react to what is happening in the world, but I was struck yesterday by the Washington Post’s account of some of the extravagances of the wealthy, asking that hotel staff would bring their kids a rare $50,000 frog, or for San Pellegrino sparkling water to be flown in from Italy so they could wash their hair (Perrier wouldn’t do). Not to mention those who would not directly address the common folk – delegating that sullied task to their bodyguards. I am also reminded of the extravaganza of another absurdly wealthy man, arguably one of the richest in the world – who invaded a neighboring country with his armies and now weaponizes the food destined for Africa. Or another, from the top of his golden throne in Arabia, that decides to make oil more expensive for the whole world. And in Britain, they substituted a wealthy man who would throw parties after forbidding everyone else from having them, for a woman who wanted to lower taxes for the rich, and now for one of the wealthiest men in England, said to be richer than the Crown itself – without elections.
It’s undeniable that inequality is rising over the globe. In the last few years, as I argued here, the wealthiest have become wealthier at a rate impossible to follow by anyone else. At the same time, as shown above, the middle class even in the richest countries is finding it difficult to make ends meet. Private debt is now an inescapable reality for most. And even though millions have been raised from abject poverty in recent years, many will be thrown back into it by climate change, drought, and famine.
Now, unlike what many have been saying, this is not, in my view, caused by capitalism itself. The kind of wealth and extravagances we are talking about have been here for a long time. We can recall the wild nature of Rome or the court of Louis XIV; the ridiculous pharaohs of Egypt or the capricious Emperors of China. In fact, I have argued and will argue again that the greatest problem we have to face today is again aristocracy. Or what I call Aristocratic Thinking – that disregard for the balance of society, or for the rules of the rest of us that are the basis of equality and true liberal thinking; that sense of elitism and of a superior role and value to the world, that comes from position, blood relations, power and wealth. Aristocratic Thinking leads to the idea that it is the Elites that should rule and save the world. Aristocratic Thinking is the sense that because of birth and favor of the gods, some are better and entitled to more than others. Aristocratic Thinking is the perception that the inferior should bow and the superior, command. Those who indulge in Aristocratic Thinking do not believe in their core that ‘all men are created equal’, and that ‘no man is above the law’ – they are unequal because they are better-born or raised by their superior abilities. Many actually think they apply themselves harder than single parents who work three jobs to make ends meet, or are cleverer than farmers and scientists.
We might say that the Liberal Agenda itself, and the Liberal revolutions around it, bloody as they were, emerged to fight that thinking from the start. As inequality and its effects are entrenching in the world today, we may fear that the powers of dissatisfaction and the feelings of injustice, will bring more and more extremist and violent views – be it to the Right or the Left, with Religious fervor or without it. Because we believed to have slain this particular dragon in the past and yet here we are, seeing it emerge from its cave, again and again, to burn us with its horrible breath.
Of course, I’m not against wealth. That doesn’t make any sense – if we are for private property and private initiative, as I believe we must, then some will be wealthier than others. However, some levels of wealth rise to absurdity. If we look around us, we can see that a man who has $1000 will have far worse living conditions than a man with $10,000. A man with $10,000 will have considerably worse well-being than one with $100,000. There is still a fair distance between a man with $100,000 and a man with $1,000,000. There are not many human beings worth $1,000,000. Only about 2% of Mankind is this wealthy. Less than 2 in 100 people. 98% of the population doesn’t get there.
A person worth $1,000,000 is already rich and obviously secure and comfortable. Now, we could argue that someone worth $10,000,000 might have a slightly better life, but can one argue that somebody worth $100,000,000 will live 10 times better? Maybe a little bit, but 10 times? Why? Would you eat better? Have a much better house? A better car? Health care? Justice? Better lawyers? Is there something that you cannot buy with $10,000,000 that would considerably change your life for the better? Maybe a 7-star hotel instead of a 5-star one? Maybe a 1000-horsepower car instead of a 300-horsepower one? There aren’t many roads in the world that can handle 300km/h let alone 400km/h, though. Nor caviar is 10 times better than an excellent one. Do you really need a bigger boat? Or a bigger airplane?
So, maybe you can argue that $100,000,000 is much better than $10,000,000 and it is finally indeed being wealthy. But how can you argue that about $1,000,000,000? How is 1 billion dollars a socially reasonable and acceptable amount of wealth? Do you realize that this amount is enough to bring 1 million people from $1000 to $10,000 worth of well-being? And how can you justify $100 billion in wealth? About 1 billion people in the world live with less than $1 a day. $365 a year! I should probably have started my thought experiment with even lower living standards. Yet, there are fortunes worth $40 billion, $60 billion, $100 billion… it’s obscene.
Aristocratic Thinking is pervasive and common throughout the land. In 2010, for example, the Supreme Court of the United States ill-served America and the world by ruling in the infamous Citizens United case that investing in politicians is not an exercise in power but an exercise in opinion. The strength of our opinion apparently depends on the size of our purse, not the consistency of our reasoning. The opinion of the rich, it seems, is more valuable than the opinion of the poor. Something that seems the exact opposite of what the Constitution of the United States actually says. But what do I know – I’m not a legal scholar.
As you might know, I’m not against capitalism, quite the opposite, I believe it brought us much good, supporting the incredible evolution of Humanity in the last two centuries and maybe the whole of History. But I believe capitalism is like Nature, it’s like an ocean – it must be reined in to be useful; otherwise, it can destroy us. Wealth should be capped, somehow. Cap it at $500 million, if you need some leeway. It’s not an easy task, yet it’s morally correct.
But even if we don’t cap wealth, what kind of Human Being are you if, having the opportunity to raise 1 million people from abject poverty, or give insulin to every single diabetic in America, or a $2000 bonus to every one of your ill-paid employees, you decide to buy a $500 million yacht instead? And what kind of a society are we if we find this acceptable?