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Are billionaires ethical?

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Are billionaires ethical?

The question on the morality of billionaires is not a new concept. No doubt, the popularity of Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in present-day politics and the increased conversation surrounding socialism have heightened questions of whether or not billionaires are “moral.”

Let it be clear that billionaires themselves, as human beings, should not be questioned as a moral or nonmoral person. 

Putting all devastating acts that have been inflicted by billionaires aside, the fact of the matter is that the vast majority of us have never come face to face with these people whose morality we are attempting to question. 

Rather, what should be questioned is the existence of their wealth as it compares to the rest of the U.S. population and the potential for damage that a billionaire’s wealth can cause. 

Is it moral for our government, as a system that has the power to at least attempt to make changes to socioeconomic disparities, to allow for such an extreme wealth gap to exist?

These are numbers you have likely seen many times, but just as a refresher: 

The combined wealth of all households in the United States added up to$128.42 trillionin the first quarter of this year. The wealthiest 1% held 31.99% of the total wealth, up from 28.59% in the first quarter of 2000, according to the Board of Governors of the Federal Revenue System website. The bottom 50% of households in the United States held 1.97% of the total wealth, as compared to 3.35% in 2000.

These numbers are disheartening. While both being in a better position than some countries and worse than others, one could argue that the United States is in an OK position. This may be true, but we do have to consider the kind of influence and role model effect our economic system has on the rest of the world. Are we willing to call ourselves role models of economic success with these existing disparities?

What should be considered is the power we hold as a country economically and the power that billionaires hold in their hands.

Being part of a capitalist economic system where wealth is privately owned, billionaires can do whatever they want with that money, and this has created both great and terrifying outcomes. 

“[The Koch brothers], that's an example of a billionaire who has inflicted grave, great damage on the world,” Jamie Mayerfeld, professor of political science and law, societies & justice, said.  “And then, you know, there are people like Bill Gates or George Soros, who I think are more thoughtful about how they use their billions and may have done great, good.”

The Koch brothers are notorious for many things, most notably, their damaging effects on the progress of climate change and public climate change denial in the United States. Furthermore, privately-owned companies can create damaging climate effects — companies that are only allowed to exist because of capitalism.

The obvious solutions to taking some of this power away, or perhaps evening out this power imbalance, are frequently discussed concepts: taxing the rich, affordable education, affordable healthcare, or really any kind of social welfare system. 

These solutions scare many people away, as they are often accompanied by fear of socialism, despite many countries successfully having shown the success of what is considered a capitalist and socialist hybrid system, such as the social democracy in Scandinavian countries like Norway, Denmark, Finland, or Sweden. 

With all of this in mind, the United States seems far from on board with a lot of these concepts. A study done by the Pew Research Center in 2019 displayed that a much larger share of Americans hold a positive view of capitalism (65%) as opposed to socialism (42%)

Some people believe that capitalism is the answer to a higher standard of living. 

“Consider, also, the Asian Tigers (Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore). Capitalism was put on warp speed there — and consequently, so were its astounding results. These countries have experienced 20+ fold increases in living standards since the 1960s/70s,” political science professor Victor Menaldo said in an email. “Or, think about the Eastern European countries since the fall of the Berlin Wall as freer markets took root there. In Poland, Hungary, [and] the Czech Republic, improvements in average living standards have been fivefold, sixfold, and eightfold, respectively. Finally, over 1 billion people have been lifted from poverty in China and India in the wake of market liberalizing reforms in those countries that integrated them more closely with the global economy in terms of international investment flows and trade.” 

When we look at a defense of capitalism, we must distinguish between modern-day capitalism and old capitalism, and consider what new problems capitalism has created that did not exist 50 years ago. 

“We need to learn from the history of 20th century communism, which created terrible horrors,” Mayerfeld said. “But we should also learn from the real-life history of capitalism, which has also created very serious problems. One area, of course, is the climate emergency.”

The debate over capitalism and its ethics is an incredibly complex issue. It is one perspective that the existence of billionaires and capitalism can be beneficial for the poor, creating jobs and an overall more prosperous economy that can set more people up for success. Menaldo offered a thoughtful defense of capitalism, which I would encourage giving a read.

It is another perspective that socialism and social welfare systems are the key to success. One thing is certain: The power that billionaires hold is terrifying and it can often be used for incredibly unethical things, such as unjust labor practices or environmental harm. 

The answer to what to do about this power still seems very complicated. What can be done, what should be done, and what the people of the United States want to be done could all be different.

“[Billionaires] do have a lot of power, and that’s worrying,” Mayerfeld said. “But if the solution to that is to say the government should do everything, I’m enough of a pluralist and limited-government person to think that it's good to have centers of power outside government.”

Reach writer Mary Murphy at opinion@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @marymurphy301

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