We talk a lot about the poverty line. Why not a riches line?

Politicians, researchers, and activists often trumpet the importance of lifting people above the poverty line. This is an admirable social policy objective, even if there are fundamental problems with how the poverty line is established. The idea that no individual should live below a certain standard of living, given the relative wealth of the society in which they live, is an expression of justice.

But why are we always looking downward, and never upward? Should we not equally maintain the need for a riches line, a maximum threshold of personal wealth that no one should be able to surpass? In some sense, this a much more radical idea than a poverty line. Governments across the ages have generally accepted some level of duty to prevent abject poverty and destitution amongst their citizens or subjects. The enforcement of caps on private wealth accumulation, to the best of my knowledge, has never happened before.

Philosopher Ingrid Robeyns has been a leading figure in the case for a riches line. She is an advocate of limitarianism, a political philosophy which principally calls for hard limits on surplus holdings of wealth. In her groundbreaking 2019 article, What, if Anything, is Wrong with Extreme Wealth?, Roybens presents two overarching arguments for why unlimited wealth accumulation is morally objectionable: the democratic argument and the argument from unmet needs.

The democratic argument is relatively straightforward and probably familiar to most of us. The existence of enormous fortunes threatens the democratic principle of political equality (i.e. the ideal that the preferences of each person should count equally in the formation of social rules and laws). In a society of immense inequality, the ears of legislators will inevitably be bent toward those with the deepest pockets, not the average citizen. Sadly, we know this from direct experience. Everyone is well aware that the U.S./U.K. government are primarily servants of wealthy donors. The citizens of these countries live in what Sheldon Wolin calls a ‘managed democracy’ and have no real say in governing affairs.

The argument from unmet needs is also a common justification given for progressive and socialist agendas. The prospect of some individuals lacking the basic requirements to live, whilst others have vastly more than enough, entails a normative cause for redistribution from the latter to the former. The imposition of a riches line would open up the sums needed to satisfy this moral imperative.

These are fine arguments and Robeyns makes them in convincing fashion. But they are just two among many potential justifications. Personally, I would make the case for a riches line by identifying it as a requirement of a free society. Of course, to the right-wing libertarian, the suggestion of a riches line is an anathema. For them, one is free to the degree that their property rights are unviolated. Expropriation of surplus wealth by the state is therefore freedom-endangering.

I don’t want to be overly dismissive of the libertarian view because there are serious arguments that can be made in its favor. The work of Robert Nozick and Eric Mack are exemplary in this regard. But in the end, I think many of us correctly recognize that the outcomes tolerated by a libertarian theory of liberty are actually freedom-endangering.

We have what the Germans would call a hintergedanken (a thought at the very back of your mind) that the existence of billionaires and widespread liberty for the mass of people are incompatible. And the reason is quite simple: freedom requires that one’s choices are immune from manipulation by others. If somebody has the power to mess with my choices to their advantage, then I have clearly suffered a loss of freedom. Individuals in command of untold wealth obviously have the power to do this to us ‘common folk’.

Billionaires can stifle economic competitors, depriving us of consumer choice. They can render our preferred political candidates to obscurity, depriving us of political choice. They can buy up media outlets and censor independent outlets, depriving us of educational choice. Again, this is not a suggestion of ‘theory’, it is our daily experience. Listen to independent journalists, entrepreneurs, activists in third parties, and one will hear the same story: there is simply no way to challenge the billionaire-backed institutions.

We cannot be free if our choices are manipulated, constricted, and controlled. A cap on the wealth is thus absolutely necessary to stymie the ever-growing power of the billionaire class to snuff out our liberty. The longer we wait to institute a riches line, the worse things will get. Eventually, it may be too late and the rise of neo-feudalism will be inescapable. Hopefully we can head off that possibility in time, and a riches line would be the best first step.

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Robert Donoghue

Robert Donoghue

PhD Student in Social Policy at the University of Bath