Today’s meritocratic ideology glorifies entrepreneurs and billionaires. At times this glorification seems to know no bounds. Some people seem to believe that Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, and Mark Zuckerberg single-handedly invented computers, books, and friends. One can get the impression that they can never be rich enough and that the humble people of the earth can never thank them enough for all the benefits they have brought. To defend them, sharp lines are drawn between the wicked Russian oligarchs and the nice entrepreneurs from Seattle and Silicon Valley, while all criticism is forgotten: their quasi-monopolistic behavior is ignored as are the legal and tax breaks they are granted and the public resources they appropriate.
Billionaires are such fixtures of the contemporary imagination that they have entered into fiction, which fortunately maintains more ironic distance than do the magazines. In Destiny and Desire (2008), Carlos Fuentes paints a portrait of Mexican capitalism and its attendant violence. We meet a cast of colorful characters, including a president who sounds like an ad for Coca-Cola but is ultimately a pitiful political timeserver whose power is risible compared with the eternal power of capital, embodied in an omnipotent billionaire who strongly resembles the telecommunications magnate Carlos Slim, the richest man not only in Mexico but also in the world from 2010 to 2013 (ahead of Bill Gates). Two young people hesitate between resignation, sex, and revolution. They end up being murdered by a beautiful, ambitious woman who covets their inheritance and who has no need of a Vautrin to tell her what she needs to do to get it—proof, if proof were needed, that violence has been cranked up a notch since 1820. Inherited wealth, coveted by all who are born outside the privileged family circle but destructive of the personalities of those born within it—is at the heart of the novelist’s meditation. The book occasionally alludes to the baleful influence of the gringos, the Americans who own “thirty percent of Mexico” and make inequality even harder to bear.
In L’empire du ciel (Heaven’s Empire), a novel published in 2016 by Tancrède Voituriez, a Chinese billionaire has an ingenious idea for changing the climate. By taking a few thousand feet off the top of the Himalayas, he can arrange for the Indian monsoon to waft over China and get rid of the nasty shroud of pollution hanging over Beijing. Communists or not, billionaires think that anything goes, are enamored of geoengineering, and detest nothing so much as simple but unpleasant solutions (such as paying taxes and living quietly). In All the Money in the World (TriStar Pictures, 2017), Ridley Scott portrays J. Paul Getty, the world’s richest man in 1973 and so stingy that he is willing to run the risk that the Italian mafia will cut off his grandson’s ear rather than pay a large ransom (even with a tax deduction). The film showed a billionaire so petty and antipathetic that today’s moviegoers, used to seeing wealth celebrated and entrepreneurs depicted as amiable and deserving, felt somewhat embarrassed by it.
Several factors help to explain the force of today’s ideology. As always, there is fear of the void. If one accepts the idea that Bill, Jeff, and Mark could be happy with $1 billion each (instead of their $300 billion joint net worth) and would no doubt have lived their lives in exactly the same way even if they had known in advance that this was as rich as they would get (which is quite plausible), then some will ask, “But where does it end?” Historical experience shows that such fears are exaggerated: redistribution can be done in a methodical, disciplined way. But the lessons of history are of no avail: some people will always remain convinced that it is too risky to open Pandora’s box. The fall of communism is also a factor. The Russian and Czech oligarchs who buy athletic teams and newspapers may not be the most savory characters, but the Soviet system was a nightmare and had to go. Nevertheless, people are increasingly aware that the influence of billionaires has grown to proportions that are worrisome for democratic institutions, which are also threatened by the rise of inequality and “populism” (to say nothing of the riots Michael Young anticipated for 2033).
Another important factor contributing to the legitimation of billionaires is what one might call the philanthropic illusion. Because the state and its tax revenues have grown since the 1970s-1980s to unprecedented size, it is natural to think that philanthropy (altruistic private financing in the public interest) ought to play an increased role. Indeed, precisely because of the size of the government, it is legitimate to demand greater transparency about what taxes are levied and how the revenues are spent. In many sectors, such as culture, media, and research, it may be a good idea to have mixed public and private financing channeled through a decentralized network of participatory organizations. The problem is that philanthropic discourse can be deployed as part of a particularly dangerous anti-state ideology. This is especially true in poor countries, where philanthropy (and in some cases foreign aid from rich countries) can be a means of circumventing the state, which contributes to its pauperization. The fact is that in poor countries the state is anything but omnipotent. In most cases, its tax revenues are extremely limited and indeed quite a bit smaller than the revenues that the rich countries enjoyed when they were developing. For the billionaire or even the less well-endowed donor, it may be pleasant to be in a position to set a country’s priorities in health care and education. Still, nothing in the history of the rich countries suggests that this is the best method of development.
Another point about the philanthropic illusion is that philanthropy is neither participatory nor democratic. In practice, giving is extremely concentrated among the very wealthy, who often derive significant tax advantages from their gifts. In other words, the lower and middle classes subsidize through their taxes the philanthropic preferences of the wealthy—a novel form of confiscation of public goods and control derived from wealth. A different model might be better. If citizens could participate equally in a collective social process of defining the public good along the lines of the egalitarian model of political party financing, it might be possible to move beyond parliamentary democracy.
Excerpted from Capital and Ideology by Thomas Piketty, published by Harvard University Press. Copyright © 2020 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Used by permission. All rights reserved.