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Actually, Bernie Sanders, Billionaires Should Exist

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To deny the billionaires of today the aspiration to earn as much as they do (let alone the right), we deny the possibility for everyone else to earn it tomorrow.”

Every once in a while an age-old argument will resurface, disguised as novel discourse. Such is the case with the recent billionaire debate, a vociferous and, at times, acrid dispute concerning those individuals at the peak of our economic hierarchy. Owed in large part to an election cycle (as so much audacious rhetoric tends to be), this debate is the product of a radical new wealth tax proposed by Democratic candidates Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Being sold as some long-overdue condemnation of society’s most avaricious, the billionaire discussion belies a long-fought history of intellectual debate, but it inevitably reduces itself to the same, centuries-old calls for economic reconstruction, a position endemic to the Left. The axes of its arguments are diverse and interconnected, but seldom original. 

I want to avoid this banal retreading of arguments gone-by. Whether it be in terms of freedom, coercion, equity or justice—the waves of this discussion rise and fall like the tide. There is, however, an alternative: an avenue of thought rarely explored and more rarely understood: one from which many of these principles derive (and can only be derived)—and from which the most unlikely defense of the billionaire class emerges— their poverty. 

It’s a radical and counterintuitive notion, one that I’m sure many will consider laughable, if not entirely abhorrent. How could Bill Gates or Jeff Bezos—the two richest people on the planet, the 0.001%—ever be considered to be poor? Or anyone with a nine-zero net worth for that matter: tycoons, oil barons and tech giants: those among us best measured in luxury yachts, not dollar bills. The answer lies in a notion largely estranged from modern society, seldom discussed in economics, and all but forbidden in political discourse. The answer lies in optimism. 

But quickly: a brief (and only briefly banal) retreading of arguments gone-by. The history of this debate has been one of equivocations, resulting in multiple levels of argument reliably at cross-purposes. The defense from optimism concerns specific criticisms and utilizes concepts from varying levels of emergence. It is, therefore, necessary to clarify terms so as to avoid confusion. 

The socialist-capitalist debate is one of all values, principles, systems and outcomes— those moral values we aspire to, the economic principles that conform to those values, the systems implemented that best instantiate those principles, and, finally, the outcomes of those systems: our values realized. The causal relationship between these founding concepts is itself a point of philosophical debate, but brevity averts that tangent for now. 

Criticisms of capitalism, and thus of billionaires, operate on every level of this emergent framework. Such a statement itself stands as proof, for if billionaires are considered an emergent phenomena, they could well be the sorry consequence of a broken system, predicated on faulty principles and deriving from mistaken values. They are not, as we shall see, but a logic so linear is refreshingly lucid in light of the current discourse. The arguments we instead receive are the metamorphic suite of a once stratified ideology: absolute poverty, relative poverty, inequality, inequity (the list goes on): all once discrete and respectable lines of intellectual interest mutated by the pressures of outrage and irrationality. 

Which leads us to now. When Bernie Sanders says “Billionaires should not exist,” what exactly is he saying? Is he anti-wealth? Or anti-wealth inequality? Should billionaires not exist given our current conditions—or under no conditions whatsoever? To many his position is clear, and, to many others, it is clearly the opposite. But consensus and incredulity aside, it is the latter criterion that is of most interest here: the notion that billionaires are, in principle, undesirable. 

This has taken the fight to arithmetic itself. The very number one billion, many have argued, is so stupendously large, so unwieldy and immoderate, that no honest person should ever wish to possess it. Nor, they go on to add, should they be able to. This “argument from enormity” is often illustrated with the aid of an intuition pump: some visualization, usually of the number of seconds or years it would take to naturally accrue such a figure. Imagine, for example, you were to earn $1 a second, every second, starting today. That’s $3600 an hour, $86,000 a day and over $600,000 a week—the real life salary, in fact, of Lionel Messi, the Barcelona striker and highest paid sportsman alive. But even under this monumental payment plan, you wouldn’t achieve billionaire status until the year 2051, almost 32 years later.

These supposedly damning illustrations have many raising their eyebrows at the legal and moral methods by which billionaires attain their fortunes. Given such scales, how is it possible for anyone to earn so much in so little time? Many turn to the socialist notion of worker theft, predicated on Marx’s labour theory of value, as one possible answer. Or cronyism and corruption. Others look towards property rights, power laws, and the Pareto principle. But we’re arguing systems now, and I digress. 

Arguments from enormity make yet another mistake. They represent a common misconception about economics—and what it means to be wealthy. It’s not about the money, the number of dollars someone has in his bank account, but rather purchasing power—the financial leverage over goods and services. Money is, after all, subject to the diluting effects of inflation; it is abstract and arbitrary when considered in a vacuum. We could all become billionaires by tomorrow, for example, if our governments were to make the disastrous mistake of printing millions of new banknotes. Such an error would render us billionaires in name only, and paupers in reality. 

Purchasing power represents a far more concrete and intuitive definition of wealth, one from which objective, quantifiable measures can be derived. It means that the luxury yachts, private jets and tropical islands—those goods exclusively available to billionaires—really are the best measures of their wealth. And it is the metric by which we can gauge economic progress across the ages. Consider Louis XIV, for example, King of France and the 17th century’s very own Jeff Bezos. He was famous for having over 40 dishes prepared for his dinner every night, a display of opulence unrivaled in such times. But today, as Matt Ridley has argued, your average worker has both greater selection and higher quality of food to choose from; we all live better than the once richest man in the world because the world got richer. Not because we printed more money but because we created more wealth. 

The lesson is this. Arguments from enormity represent both a moral and aesthetic aversion to excess. But what is viewed as the rational rejection of greed is in reality mere parochial error. It invariably and inevitably leads to a debilitating pessimism that sets an upper bound on progress in its entirety. Indeed, socialism is predicated on such parameters. The founding principle of a zero-sum economy, for example, one within which there are only finite resources open to discovery, distribution, and destruction (but never creation) allows only for finite growth. And from this the anathema towards billionaires is clear: if resources are indeed finite, then a billionaire’s fortune must come at the cost of his neighbors. His excess is their loss. 

But this is false. The economy is not zero-sum, resources are not finite, and progress has no ceiling; we can create wealth, and the success of the few does not preclude that of the many. Why? Because optimism is true. 

Perhaps I should clarify. Optimism has many definitions, the most common of which being the “glass-half-full” outlook—a mechanical criterion stating to always expect favorable outcomes in the face of uncertainty. In these terms, the common-sense definitions of both optimism and pessimism (the “glass-half-empty” outlook) represent minor tendencies toward irrationality. But that is not the definition of optimism I am using here. 

In his book, The Beginning of Infinity, physicist David Deutsch speaks of a progress without bounds. He starts, as the title would suggest, at the beginning. The laws of nature (such as the absolute limit to the speed of light), Deutsch argues, represent the only truly insurmountable obstacles to mankind. Everything other than such laws—interstellar travel, immortality, AGI, a population comprising solely of billionaires (or trillionaires, or septillionaires for that matter)—are possible to achieve with the required knowledge. If they weren’t, that itself would constitute some regularity in nature and would itself be explicable. He calls this principle, with appropriate grandiosity, “The Momentous Dichotomy.” It forms the basis of an entirely new conception of physics proposed by Deutsch—away from initial conditions, laws of motion and prediction, and instead towards transformations, possible or impossible, and explanations as to why. 

But what does this have to do with optimism? And what does that have to do with billionaires? As it turns out, almost everything. Deutschian Optimism says that problems are soluble; and it allows for the possibility of unbounded growth in every realm of knowledge creation—in science, in philosophy and, most controversially of all, in economics. But socialism precludes this. And arguments from enormity despise it. So they are both false, because optimism is true. 

Herein lies a physical principle that informs our values. Indeed, many moral and economic truths follow only from an understanding of infinities: the mind-bending properties of numbers without end. One such property is encapsulated in the title of Deutsch’s book: that no matter how far we are, no matter how large we get, we are always and forever at the beginning of infinity. There’s no half-way nor nearly there, no just right nor too much. It is on this basis that arguments from enormity fail, and that appeals to poverty triumph. We will forever remain poorer than our next step forward. 

Given such potential, it seems quaint to label billionaires as excessive. But it’s far more insidious than that. To deny the billionaires of today the aspiration to earn as much as they do (let alone the right), we deny the possibility for everyone else to earn it tomorrow. We deny the possibilities that such wealth would bring: interstellar travel, immortality, AGI, a population comprising solely of billionaires (you get the idea). 

But these are mere platitudes, surely? Such unbounded thinking represents a betrayal of serious thought for science-fiction idealism, today’s suffering for tomorrow’s utopia. As Greta Thunberg urges us to remember, “People are dying.” And as she goes on to condemn, “all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth.” That’s about climate change, a topic whose history and structures mirror that of the billionaire debate in many respects. Both wage war along the axes of capitalism and socialism, optimism and pessimism. And as is clear from Ms. Thunberg’s statements alone, both land firmly on the latter. 

The beginning of infinity need not blind us to the problems of today—quite the opposite. It highlights them for what they truly are: not inoperable sicknesses doomed to overcome us, nor indignant sins for which we must repent—but opportunities for growth, discovery, and success. And only through optimism can we hope to solve such problems, for as Deutsch himself has said, it is far easier to make progress if you first believe it to be possible. 

So billionaires are good. They should exist because progress is both possible and desirable; they should exist today because capitalism is optimism applied to markets; and they will exist in the future, in far greater frequency than today, unless we deny ourselves such success. The true billionaire problem of the 21st century is not one of overabundance, but scarcity. Not of ridding ourselves of billionaires, but creating more. Arguments to the contrary are, in the plainest of terms, arguments for poverty. Let’s rid ourselves of that, instead.

Tom Hyde is a student at University College London studying for an MSc in Geophysical Hazards.

29 thoughts on “Actually, Bernie Sanders, Billionaires Should Exist

  1. Very nice article: this much-needed defence of capitalism is both well-written and well-argued. I hope to see more from Hyde soon!

    1. What a moron. This is not capitalism, this is crony capitalism. Read my comment above, the founders explicity did NOT want billionaires, they did not have them because CORPORATIONS WERE NOT ALLOWED AND ON LIMITED CHARTER. It was virtually impossible by design you could ever have a billionaire until our 14th Amendment was created and usurped Jeffersonian democracy.

  2. In my humble opinion, you entirely miss the point, and even the pointS.
    First, the criticism isn’t in itself of billionaires, but of absurd earnings in an age of scarce poverty for part of even developed countries population. The idea isn’t (or shouldn’t be) to forbid the earning of a billion dollar forever (as you say yourself it would make no sense considering the potential inflation). The concept is to forbid the earning of a sum that is so indecently out of touch with the reality of most people, if not all. A variable sum, not a fixed one.

    So now that this has been clarified, let’s touch your real arguments. First NO our ability to grow is NOT infinite. It is stunning to see you talking about infinite growth in one line and then about Greta and climate change in the next. No, everybody can’t be a billionaire tomorrow because the planet has only so much economic potential. Sure, it can grow from where we are, but there IS a finite amount of wealth we can create with raw resources the planet possess, and the working population it can harbor. You could add robotic and automatization, but at the end of the day, it is still finite. Sure you can add space potential, but how can you be so sure we’re not already passed the point where we won’t have enough resources to leave our system? Specialists don’t know. You merely introduced a possibility of even further growth. So your optimism is wrong, and the terrible state of our planet should be proof enough that ignoring this is a grave danger for the whole human species.

    But there is even an argument to make if one is to dream of infinite growth, ignoring every signal and wearing consciously his eye mask every day. You use the controversial argument of “we all live better than the once richest man in the world because the world got richer.”. We’ll ignore this has been debunked since then, because the comparison didn’t make sense in the first place. Even if the poorer US inhabitant was richer than Louis XIV, it doesn’t matter, because he is still too poor to eat food at each meal (note that your argument imagines the contrary) let alone healthy and varied food. But I digress, the point is then: if during Louis XIV life the poorest of French people were dying of famine (it is one of the causes of 1789), and if during our billionaire’s age the poorest of their fellow co-Americans (or Europeans) are dying of famine (and bad health, and being without a house), then what difference is there for them? Contrary to your cited article belief, today’s poorest French man is EXACTLY as unhappy and sick and affamished than his 18th century’s equivalent. And you know what is shocking? the other part of your argument is perfectly true. The world has gone richer. But you know where is all this new wealth? bet it. In the richest of the richest pockets. We’re close to the same level of inequalities between the richest and poorest men than previous to 1789 Revolution, and yet we’re far more numerous than then. Your wealth progression is both a population progression and a continuity of inequalities in which nobody has any interest except the few being on the top of the food chain. In fact, apart from them, everybody would gain from a better repartition. And I add the precision I would probably be on the “give more to others” side of the repartition, even as I am already giving a lot as I am, as some could have guessed, French.

    1. Resources are a function of knowledge, not materials. Knowledge creation is unbounded and thus so are resources. See Deutsch’s book “The Beginning of Infinity” for further explanation.

      1. There we disagree. Ressources are a product of both.

        If you tie resources to knowledge without material consideration, then your resources are only services and virtual things (as is, in fact, knowledge), and the more your economy is dependant on these, the more you’re closing on an inflation scenario. If you think about it, printing more money or saying that your sequence of number value more than a house is not that different. Attributing arbitrary value to abstract things is very dangerous, and that’s part of why most people actually expanding knowledge don’t want to do that. And you can take that from a programmer.

        Plus you ignore the growth of material resources your service economy needs (computers on which compute your new services, high tech mobile to home your application, electric batteries for your new AI-driven car). In fact, the knowledge itself cost material resources, to research and then to communicate it to others, to use it and expand it. It is perhaps off your initial point, but ignoring it and pretending your knowledge expansion is infinite is all the more dangerous. It is only infinite in a vacuum where its search is done by an unconsuming entity, with no other needs. And this entity cannot even be static because the more knowledge the harder it is to expand it significantly enough to add new resources to the economy. So a growing perfectly free source of knowledge. And people accuse Socialism, Communism or Anarchism to be Utopias…

        1. The basic idea is that: nothing is a resource until someone has the knowledge of how to use it. So, there are parts of our universe that we may regard as useless today that, with the right knowledge, could be a valuable commodity.

    2. Indecency is a social norm/value, which is to say it is subjective and not based on anything other than social status competition games, which would exist even if all resources were equally shared, indeed it would be far more intense than it is now, since different forms of capital and values allow for niches and differentiation which reduces the amount of people one “competes” with. As to poverty instead of people dying of famines we have people dying from obesity in much of the developed world, and if we are going to play the game of unfairness, what is your stance on people making the minimum wage in many developed countries having purchasing power which is higher than the “affluent” in developing countries? As for inequality overall, there is higher wealth inequality throughout Scandinavia today than there was in France on the eve of the French Revolution.

  3. We don’t need the specter of billionaires to create motivation to grow. What an outdated trope, that immense wealth is actually what motivates the population to work, innovate and create. Security, comfort, respect, fame, a sense of service, and passion for their craft are the things that motivate most people. You don’t need to be a billionaire or even a millionaire to have these things. The fact that you think people should strive to have such an outsized amount of personal resources shows you are stuck in the same mindset that has lead to the clueless exploitation of our planet. That mindset is not sustainable. The only mindset that allows us to sustain 10 billion people living out of extreme poverty is one where we stop idolizing those that live far outside their needs.

      1. Universal freedom is a meaningless concept without more description. Do you mean freedom to exploit the workforce for personal gain? The freedom to influence politics purely with wealth? How about reclaiming some of that wealth that the public helped create to offer freedom in real tangible ways? Wouldn’t publicly funded healthcare offer freedom from financial ruin due to health problems? Wouldn’t publicly funded higher education (trade schools and universities) create true equality of opportunity that “capitalists” have always appealed to? Undifferentiated Freedom is yet another tired buzzword of the American Dream of the 50s. The next American generation sees that the promises of classical liberalism have been hollow. Whether you like it or not, whether in this election cycle or the next or the next, significant change is coming to this system. The voting trends of Americans under 40 years old make this an easy forecast.

        1. Or publicly funded healthcare may increase perverse incentives. Or publicly funded education could lead to credential creep and pressure on wages through higher supply. The Silent Generation and Boomers have become more Republican as they have aged, Gen X more Democratic, so its not a given.

  4. Wow, it takes a weak understanding of math and economics to believe this. Three people own more wealth than half of americans, did they work any harder than the rest of us? Did any of the three of them actually even write any important code? The answer is obviously no and that instead of pretending that being pro billionaire means there will be more billionaires accept the super obvious fact that getting rid of the billionaires WILL actually let there be more hundred thousand airs.

    1. Were all the Americans from the bottom half (which you failed to note) forced into the vocational, spending and other choices they made which caused that disparity?

  5. Billionaires should NOT exist. The Founding Fathers were adamantly against this “Free Market” Adventurism. Specifically because of the risk of Plutocracy and Oligarchy. THEY DID NOT WANT BILLIONAIRES. Since the beginning of the income tax, taxes were mostly 70% to prevent this. It did not stop people at that time from becoming rich. Looks like you have more reading to do.

  6. What do you mean resources are not finite? Do we have extra land that I do not know about? Infinite trees and rocks to build infinite buildings? Of course wealth is finite, money may not be but actual stuff to own, is clearly finite. Additionally if money was indeed infinite we would have run away inflation. Wealth IS zero-sum, this is in fact the basis of capitalism, we may have moved from the gold standard but resources have a limit.

  7. The brainwashed, jealousy ridden ignorance in these comments is disturbing. Nice work man, keep it up. Anyone who tries to derail prosperity and promise successfull outcome for all should not be trusted.

  8. Jeff Bezos could stack his $ in dollar bills outside the earths 62 mile atmosphere about 150 times. Nuff said. This article is right wing trash, the argument is….. “capitalism is optimism” ?

  9. Uhhh fucki you. You are a immoral shitbag and billionaires are no different than monarchs of the past. Don’t kid yourself you won’t become a billionaire and the same applies to the vast vast majority of people.

  10. While I find it interesting to see this side of the debate argued, I agree with other commenters who have said that this whole article just felt like it missed the point. I see what you are saying when you talk about “infinite”. We do live in a world of infinite possibilities, but in the framing of a single life time, everything suddenly becomes finite. Why? Because our lives are finite.

    Sure, the fact billionaires exist may drive some people, but it’s an aspiration that 0.001% of people on this planet will ever achieve in their life time. What are you talking about when you say we might all become billionaires? That is probably the point that I have the most problems with. If we were all billionaires then the very idea of a billionaire would cease to have any relevance. I would like to see a world where that much wealth can exist on the planet without it suddenly becoming meaningless. The only reason that we even care about billionaires is because only a handful of them exist. I am no economist (same as you I guess) but to me, the very fact that billionaires exist in the world show the glaring holes in the free market system.

    To make something really clear, I am not against wealth. I am actually a fan of the free market system (to some extent), I believe that it drives innovation and has made a large percentage of people’s lives far better. But this doesn’t mean I agree that it should be deregulated to the point where such large disparities can exist.
    Yes we have an infinite level of choice compared to the monarchs of old, but you cannot tell me that someone on minimum wage, struggling to afford rent every month is able to enjoy any of that.

    Even if I concede that billionaires are a natural part of life, then why is it that they, on average, pay 23% in tax while working class people pay 28%. I, as an individual, pay a larger percent of income tax then Jeff Bezos’ whole empire paid. I know some may argue that over $100million in tax is a large sum, but it stops being so large when one realises that that makes up a measly 1.2% tax rate.

    The conversation of whether or not billionaires should exist is one of those fun abstract arguments you have with friends at a bar. No one is going to convince billionaires to give up their wealth (and power). The conversations that we should be having is why companies and individuals can still avoid income taxes? This small group of people have so much power that they are able to sidestep around the rules of the state.

    Money buys power. There is no more simple explanation then that. No one is becoming a billionaire to buy more stuff. Elon Musk is not going to space for the betterment of mankind. He is doing it for the power and prestige that that act will bring him.

    Yes capitalism may have many benefits, but I personally refuse to believe that we as a human race cannot do better than that. I do not believe that this is the best system.
    We created the idea of money, and now have become completely enslaved by the idea of it. The only reason that there is an infinite earning potential inside of a finite planet is because we live in an age of ‘Magic Money”. An abstract idea where the ceiling doesn’t actually exist.

    1. “Sure, the fact billionaires exist may drive some people, but it’s an aspiration that 0.001% of people on this planet will ever achieve in their life time.” There’s a variety of reasons for this. Many people aren’t even striving to become that rich, many others are simply not capable of it. Usually when it comes to statistics such as this I ignore it as it is taken out of context and really has no relevance. One persons chances a very different from another’s.

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