“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.”
very 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.