Are billionaires bad for democracy?
Recent history hasn’t been reassuring, has it? But the question is more complicated than you might think. Let’s break it down.
Are billionaires bad, period? There’s a sizable constituency for this proposition. In the UK, for example, you can find prominent individuals who think billionaires should be hanged. Well, maybe not hanged exactly; the formulation that caught my eye was “shouldn’t be allowed to exist.” Possibly some humane method of euthanasia was contemplated.
However, that wasn’t it either. What Labour MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle actually said during a 2019 BBC radio interview was he didn’t think anyone in Britain should be a billionaire, on the argument that nobody really needed that much money.
There’s no disputing this. However, looking at the matter objectively, I think most fair-minded people would say billionaires – some billionaires, anyway – have social utility. One thinks of Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk – these people have changed our world, maybe not entirely for the better, but the printing press wasn’t a 100% boon for humanity either. They surely wouldn’t have done it for free.
One can make the case that having tens or even hundreds of billions of dollars isn’t such a bad thing. Musk built mighty industries out of rocketry and electric vehicles, but subway construction was a bust. A waste of money? Come now – he could afford it, and it was worth a try. At least now we know.
On the other hand, some forms of billionarity ought arguably to be extirpated. Inherited wealth seems like a promising candidate – the Teeming Millions are entreated to read Evan Osnos’s eye-opening New Yorker piece on the Getty heirs. And don’t get me started on cryptobillionairitude. But that’s a column for another day.
Is concentration of wealth bad for democracy? According to one recent estimate, the 728 U.S. billionaires collectively control $4.5 trillion, half again more than the bottom 50% of U.S. taxpayers, who control just $3 trillion. That can’t be good. However, one hesitates to lay the distortions of the body politic evident in our time entirely at the feet of the billionairiat. Globalization, to cite a leading factor, has disproportionately favored the educated and urbane. If you take recent election results as a referendum on satisfaction with the modern world, which appears to be the great divide, the verdict for the past couple decades has been close to 50-50. It’s not just billionaires on one side.
Are some billionaires bad for democracy? We can all think of one individual who’s been working pretty hard at it. But another case is perhaps equally instructive – Peter Thiel, the billionaire co-founder of PayPal, early investor in Facebook, and contributor to conservative politicians, including Donald Trump and, more recently, J.D. Vance.
Thiel, an enigmatic outlier in Silicon Valley, has been freaking people out for years. He was brought to my mind most recently by an opinion piece by Peter Schwartz, who’d worked himself into quite a state:
Thiel believes globalization is the Antichrist, the Antichrist is the antecedent to the Apocalypse foretold in the Book of Revelations and only a turn toward Jesus Christ can save humanity from annihilation … The “Christian statesman or stateswoman,” the audience for which it turns out Thiel is writing, lingers in “the twilight of the modern age, waiting on Christ’s return, for that glorious day when all will be revealed, all injustices will be exposed, all those who perpetrated them will be held to account” … While these Christians wait, they serve as stewards, protecting and healing when they can, killing and destroying when they must … Thiel’s vision … echoes the eschatology of Christian Reconstructionists who believe Christ’s return, following an “Age of Enlightenment,” will require active, and almost-assuredly violent, political intervention.
Jiminy. Schwartz said he’d pulled many of the scare quotes from a 2004 essay by Thiel called “The Straussian Moment” that had become famous in some circles. High time I read it.
I was relieved to discover that while the Antichrist and the Apocalypse were indeed mentioned in this work, they weren’t what it was chiefly about. That said, establishing what it was about took some effort. In the course of 20-some pages Thiel refers to 9/11, George W. Bush, Osama bin Laden, the 17th century philosopher John Locke, the Thirty Years’ War, the Treaty of Westphalia, Milton Friedman, Balzac, Brecht, Pope Urban II, Romulus and Remus, Darwin, Aristotle, Nietzsche, Thomas More, Socrates, Oswald Spengler, The Matrix, and yes, if I read this right, the Second Coming of Christ, all discussed in an opaque, allusive style that leaves you wondering: what is this guy talking about? However, after some study, I’d say the following gives the drift:
The 9/11 attack reveals the moral bankruptcy and helplessness of the West’s liberal order in the face of Islamist fanatics, who at least know what they want and are willing to wreak havoc to get it, as opposed to gutless schlubs like us.
To avoid annihilation, we need to abandon the philosophical underpinnings of the Republic, which date back to John Locke – you know, all that stuff about the social contract, representative government, and the rule of law – and come up with something more suited to the historical moment.
Casting around for something serviceable, Thiel considers three candidate thinkers, all of whom could be charitably characterized as eccentric: the German legal scholar Carl Schmitt, who had been a prominent Nazi; the obscurantist professor of political philosophy Leo Strauss, a favorite of neo-conservatives; and the French historian and philosopher Rene Girard, who taught at Stanford, where he became a mentor of Thiel’s. Girard came up with something called mimetic theory, which I concede on brief exposure has a certain explanatory power but seems a couple precepts short of a philosophy of life. But Thiel, if I understand him correctly – I’m not that confident – believes a mix of Strauss and Girard is the tonic our flabby age requires.
Reactions to “The Straussian Moment” mostly fall into two categories (a) this is deep; or (b) this is dangerous and frightening. But a more sober appraisal would be: (c) this guy needs a hobby. One doesn’t wish to be overly literal, but here was an individual who seemed to think that, to give us the moral clarity needed to defeat terrorism, we should throw out cherished ideals and substitute obscure philosophical concepts you’d need a graduate seminar to understand. This doesn’t seem like an advantageous geopolitical strategy.
Nonetheless, it was clear Thiel had no use for conventional liberalism. He removed any doubt on this score in a 2009 essay called “The Education of a Libertarian”:
I remain committed to the faith of my teenage years: to authentic human freedom as a precondition for the highest good … But … I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible … Since 1920, the vast increase in welfare beneficiaries and the extension of the franchise to women — two constituencies that are notoriously tough for libertarians — have rendered the notion of “capitalist democracy” into an oxymoron.
Given these views, you can see why Thiel would be drawn to Trump. Like many, he apparently saw in his fellow billionaire a wrecking ball for the modern world. He spoke at the 2016 Republican convention, donated $1.25 million to Trump’s campaign, and served on his transition committee. He didn’t otherwise have much to do with the Trump administration but in 2022 decided to become a financier of election deniers, contributing decisively to Vance. That netted him one win out of two major political investments (the other was Blake Masters, defeated in Arizona), which any venture capitalist would say wasn’t bad.
So, are some billionaires bad for democracy? No doubt others will put forth their own candidates. But I’d say we have at least two.
Is the present campaign finance apparatus bad for democracy? Here we get to the heart of the matter. According to OpenSecrets, a nonpartisan DC group that tracks federal campaign contributions, the dismantling of fundraising restrictions by Citizens United v. FEC (2010) and other court decisions led to a massive increase in contributions by billionaires. The total amount raised during the 2008 federal electoral cycle, prior to Citizens United, was $5.5 billion, of which just $17 million (0.3%) came from billionaires. In 2018, total campaign fundraising had risen modestly to $6.4 billion, but the billionaire share had shot up 36-fold to $610 million, or 9.6% of the total. Of that number, $124 million had come from a single source, Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and his wife Miriam, and all of it had gone to Republicans. Let’s generously assume the Adelsons weren’t angling to overthrow democracy. Would it nonetheless be reasonable to think their money gave them outsize influence? You bet.
But here’s the thing. Of the total contributions by all billionaires in 2018, 51% had gone to Democrats – and Democrats regained control of the House that year. In 2020, 60% of billionaire contributions went to Democrats, who won the Presidency and both houses of Congress. In 2022, the top 100 Republican donors out-raised Democrats $742 million to $587 million, but the top contributor was billionaire George Soros, whose $179 million to Democrats surely played some role in minimizing what had been expected to be a rout.
Your columnist isn’t so partisan as to presume triumph for Democrats invariably means triumph for democracy. And it would be silly to believe contributions by billionaires were the preeminent factor in swaying the electorate. However, it’s fair to say that, at pivotal moments, a sizable bloc of billionaires, dismayed by the Trumpian drift, piled in on the other side. Wherefore a reasonable conclusion might be: it’s money that’s bad for democracy, not necessarily the people that have it.
– CECIL ADAMS
After some time off to recharge, Cecil Adams is back! The Master can answer any question. Post questions or topics for investigation in the Cecil’s Columns forum on the Straight Dope Message Board, boards.straightdope.com/.