Billionaires: Friends or Foes?
By Dayiny Balasingam
During the course of the pandemic, the top ten richest billionaires have doubled their wealth. Meanwhile, the income of the remaining global population has all but crumbled as layoffs and illness prevailed (Kelly, 2021). COVID-19 only highlighted and exacerbated an existing issue: the obscene inequality that shapes our society. These inequalities are maintained through the painstaking exploitation of the disadvantaged and the socio-political worship of the wealthy. Deaths from lack of access to healthcare, hunger, climate change, and gender and racial discrimination are still rampant, and many individuals only grow more nihilistic and apathetic to this cruelty. Therefore, I believe that billionaires should not exist in our modern economy. Through an ethical lens, I will discuss the social and political ramifications of the upending system which ultimately needs to change.
If I were to apply Kantian logic, it should be established that there is a moral duty to follow, a Universal Law. As human beings are capable of reasoning and thought, they should be the basis of morality and are inherently worthy of respect and dignity (Korsgaard, 1985). Now, how does this tie in with billionaires? Many would heavily argue that there should not be an arbitrary cap on the lawful accumulation of personal wealth. However, the wealth in question cannot be described as “well-earned”. The Universal Law here is that the amount of labour supplied directly translates into monetary recompense. A billionaire is not inherently more prone to hard work than the common labourer. In fact, they profit from the arduous labour of marginalized groups to expand this wealth. This exploitation is done through invasion of privacy, slavery, and/or child labour. And, if not through these means, this wealth is inherited. Thus, there is no such thing as “meritocracy” in becoming a billionaire. Although an illusion of the “American Dream” might still be popularized by the likes of the Fortune 400, many of these individuals “rose from the ranks” from their comfortable upper-middle-class place in suburbia (Pizzigati, 2012).
As such, billionaires contradict Kantian philosophy by using people as means and objects, not helping them advance as subjects. There is no mutual exchange. To be morally praiseworthy, billionaires must fulfil their duty of helping others through free choice, motivated by a sense of duty. They should unconditionally consider their workers as beings with rational thought and therefore, treat them morally and ethically (i.e., not lying nor creating suffering). Yet, the cost of this inequality only results in the loss and disrespect of human lives, thus creating great suffering. Hazardous conditions and gruelling working hours plague marginalized groups that work for the very corporations these billionaires built. Companies such as Apple and Tesla are all guilty of profiting from the “illegal mining of cobalt by children, which continues to enter global supply chains” (Kelly, 2019). Amazon is continuously being criticized for neglecting the needs of its workers in favour of “efficiency” and “productivity” (Kelly, 2021). Corporations boast difficult working conditions, high turnover rates (~150%) to avoid wage increases, and disregard for mental and physical health—the list goes on. Ultimately, companies such as Amazon’s immense success can only be attributed to unfair competition, disregarding environmental responsibility, violating user privacy, and of course, worker exploitation. And its head, Jeff Bezos? Well, he lives in a state of disillusionment regarding such matters; these matters do not directly impact his wealth or social standing, after all (Lowrey, 2018).
Many people will say that individuals such as Henry Ford, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark
Zuckerberg, and Jeff Bezos are or were all billionaires for one reason: they revolutionized the world with their ideas. Therefore, many argue that they are deserving of their wealth. Yet, it takes an army of people to conceptualize these ideas and bring them to fruition. Furthermore, many would say that billionaires are philanthropists, donating much of their assets to the needy public and addressing issues that torment all citizens such as poverty, climate change, and women’s rights. The persisting problem here is that these global elites have “co-opted the language of social change while reinforcing their own power” (Florida, 2018). Ultimately, wealth is a form of power. No individual deserves or should be trusted to wield the power afforded by a billion dollars, nor should they be permitted to hoard such a vast trove of resources tied up in their own persons—even if the wealth is not so tangible as for them to swim in a room of gold coins à la Scrooge McDuck. Since these individuals are taxed on investment income that is unearned as opposed to the traditional salary and wage income that is earned, they aggressively avoid taxes.
While these loopholes exist for the very benefit of the rich, they disadvantage the remainder of society that cannot benefit from government spending. That is not even considering billionaires’ offshore bank accounts and “trillions in wealth buried in complicated and opaque trust mechanisms” (Collins & Hoxie, 2015). As the elite wield power, they knew what they were doing when they “fought for an anti-tax movement to reduce taxation starting in the ’70s [...]. When they pushed for deregulation and other aspects of their pro-business, pro-wealth agenda, they succeeded, despite knowing that real people would be hurt by underfunded programs and absent regulations” (Florida, 2022). “Giving back” is almost always backhanded in this case, as it confers power. Morally, it does not stand. In terms of ethical relativism, it does not consider the population and army of individuals helping billionaires as stakeholders; therefore, it is as unethical politically to be a billionaire as it is socially. The unfortunate consequence is that society is at risk of not advancing due to this greediness.
Through these moral philosophies, it is evident that being a billionaire in this economy, or any economy, does not stand for the greater good. They only serve to further wealth inequality and disadvantage the people. And, as philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau said, “when the people shall have nothing more to eat, they will eat the rich.”
Collins, C., & Hoxie, J. (2015, December 1). Billionaire Bonanza: The Forbes 400 and the rest of us. Institute for Policy Studies. https://ips-dc.org/billionaire-bonanza/ Florida, R. (2018, September 27). Why Real Change Won’t Come From Billionaire Philanthropists. Bloomberg CityLab. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-09-27/why-the-one-percent-s-philanthropy-won-t-change-the-world Hare, R. M. (1973). Rawls' theory of justice. The Philosophy Quarterly, 91(23), 144-155. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2217486 Kelly, A. (2019, December 16). Apple and Google named in US lawsuit over Congolese child cobalt mining deaths. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2019/dec/16/apple-and-google-named-in-us-lawsuit-over-congolese-child-cobalt-mining-deaths Kelly, J. (2021, October 25). A Hard-Hitting Investigative Report Into Amazon Shows That Workers’ Needs Were Neglected In Favor Of Getting Goods Delivered Quickly. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/jackkelly/2021/10/25/a-hard-hitting-investigative-report-into-amazon-shows-that-workers-needs-were-neglected-in-favor-of-getting-goods-delivered-quickly/?sh=37d2190451f5 Korsgaard, C. (1985). Kant's formula of universal law. Pacific Philosophical Quarterly. Lowrey, A. (2018, August 1). Jeff Bezos’s $150 Billion Fortune Is a Policy Failure. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2018/08/the-problem-with-bezos-billions/566552/ Pizzigati, S. (2012, September 24). The ‘Self-Made’ Hallucination of America’s Rich. Institute for Policy Studies. https://ips-dc.org/the_self-made_hallucination_of_americas_rich/
This article won first place in the second edition of the CBR Writing Competition. This edition called for entries that explored whether billionaires should exist.