Letter to the Editor: March 17th

Dear Editor,

Wealth—in addition to selfishness—is the problem with billionaires.

On January 13th, an Editorial appeared in the pages of The Journal arguing that billionaires like Jeff Bezos should not be criticized for simply owning extreme amounts of wealth.

Everyone wants to be rich, and that’s ok, the Editorial claimed. Since Bezos “earned his fortune with a genius idea,” “nobody has the right to tell him what to do with his money.” The problem with Bezos, it suggested, “isn’t his astronomical income,” but rather his record of selfishness, and of engaging in exploitative business practices.

While I agree that Bezos should be criticized for his exploitative business practices, his vast fortune itself—in addition to his selfishness—is an injustice.

In arguing that Bezos’ money is ‘his,’ as he ‘earned’ it, the original Editorial implicitly assumed a libertarian view of property. In particular, it assumed that engaging in consensual free-market transactions gives one an absolute, unalienable right to the fruits of their labour—an absolute property right to their wealth. However, I do not think we should accept such a view of property ownership, or consequently the vast fortunes of billionaires.

Contrary to libertarianism, I would argue that property rights are not absolute; rather, they can legitimately be constrained by the demands of justice. To demonstrate this, consider an extreme example: if a single billionaire owned 99% of our society’s wealth, and everyone else lived in poverty, intuitively, even if she acquired her wealth on the free market, the billionaire’s ownership would be indefensible. Such concentrated ownership precludes equality of opportunity—her children would live in luxury, while all other children would suffer—which violates the basic intuition, shared by almost all people, that a child’s life prospects should not be entirely determined by their birth circumstances. As such, our considered intuition with respect to the billionaire is to deny her absolute claim to her wealth. Given the social misery enabled by her ownership, we think, ‘her’ money is not actually legitimately hers. Rather, it would be morally right to redistribute her wealth to create a society which is more equal and more aligned with the principles of justice—the principles constitutive of a morally good society.

However, even if libertarianism is wrong, and wealth can be legitimately redistributed—even if people do not have anything like absolute rights to private property—should Jeff Bezos’ wealth be? Is Bezos’ fortune morally wrong?

I would say yes.

This is because our society is fraught with injustice. Poverty is still all too prevalent, and economic insecurity is commonplace. Persons who cannot work through no fault of their own, such as those living with disabilities or seniors, are often provided so little social support that they have to choose between housing and food. Justice demands that these problems be rectified, and our society be ordered to ensure that everyone has the chance to live a flourishing life. However, in order to solve these problems, social spending, at least, is required. Very likely, in addition to mere social spending, creating a just society will necessitate a decrease in wealth inequality in itself. If this is the case however, as I assume it likely is, justice, therefore, demands that some wealth be distributed away from people at the top like Bezos, and toward others; justice demands that Bezos’ fortune be redistributed.

So no, although Bezos’ selfishness is a problem, it is not his only problem as a billionaire. Situated in a society with deep, deep injustice, his fortune is a problem too.

Brock Mutic

Fourth-year Politics, Philsophy, and Economics student

All final editorial decisions are made by the Editor(s)-in-Chief and/or the Managing Editor. Authors should not be contacted, targeted, or harassed under any circumstances. If you have any grievances with this article, please direct your comments to journal_editors@ams.queensu.ca.

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