« The Weeds

The case for banning...millionaires?


Political philosopher Ingrid Robeyns believes that there should be a maximum amount of money and resources that one person can have. She tells Sean how much is too much and why limiting personal wealth benefits everyone, including the super rich. This episode of The Grey Area originally aired in January 2024.

Host: Sean Illing (@seanilling), host, The Gray Area

Guest: Ingrid Robeyns. Her book is Limitarianism: The Case Against Extreme Wealth.

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This is an unofficial transcript meant for reference. Accuracy is not guaranteed.
More than 60% of sales on Amazon come from independent sellers, like Sylvia. She started You Simply See... And to help people spice up their meals. Not to deal with shipping. So she turned to Amazon to take logistics off her plate and share her global flavors, well, globally. Is AI really a thi- threat to humanity. This week on the gray area, Tyler Austin Harper gives us his take on today's extinction panic. I think we need to.
And I think we need to resist pessimism and we need to be realistic and not panglossian, but there are ways in which we can meet the challenges and we've met similar, seemingly unthinkable ones in the past. - That's This Week on The Gray Area, available wherever you get your podcasts. - It's the weeds. I'm John Glenn Hill. And today we're bringing you a recent episode from our sister podcast. It's a really interesting conversation about wealth inequality and an exploration of limitarianism, an economic theory that there should be a limit on-- stream wealth. But before we get into that, I wanted to tell you a little bit about our next new episode. It'll be in your feed on Wednesday, March 6, the day after Super Tuesday and the day
State of the union. We'll use it as an opportunity to explore something that's been on the mind of the Weeds team lately, AI and the election. If you're like us, you've heard that artificial intelligence could bring about democracy's doom or that it doesn't matter as much as we think it does. We'll find out just how worried we should be and how best to arm ourselves against being fooled. This was a question we had, but we want to know what questions you have about anything. The election, the economy, how something works, or how to solve a problem you see out in the world. You ask it and we'll find answers and explore ideas. Email your questions to weeds@vox.com. All right, here's my colleague, Sean Illing. - If you've ever heard the line,
Billionaire is a policy failure, it might hit your ear as just another empty or vague catchphrase. Or even worse, a useless hashtag. But is it actually vague? And more importantly, is it actually useless? serious policy question. Is the existence of Billionaires a sign that we've engineered unsustainable levels of inequality. The word unbelievable is the word unbelievable. Insustainable is key there. Because if we set aside, for the moment, moral questions about what's right and wrong, and just ask if this kind of inequality represents an existential threat to democratic societies, it's not clear what the answer is.
Or at least it's not simple. But I do think there's more than enough reasons to suppose that what we're doing now isn't sustainable. And if that's true, what should we do about it? I'm Sean Elling, and this is The Gray Area. Ingrid Robens. She's a political philosopher and economist at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. and she's I've just written a new book called Limitarianism, the case against extreme wealth. The basic argument is that we should impose limits on. How much wealth and resources an individual can accumulate. And not just because it is the right thing to do,
It is the politically necessary thing to do. It's a provocative thesis. But it's also a serious one, and I invited her on the show to talk about it. Ingrid Robin. Welcome to the show. - Thanks for having me. - I think it's probably best to start with a definition. Of Limitarianism. So when someone asks you what's a Limitarian, what is your simplest answer? Limitarianism is just a view that there should be an upper limit to how much personal wealth a person can accumulate. Just like there's a poverty line, nobody should fall below the poverty line. There should be an upper limit where nobody should be situated above. It's the rather obvious question, what's the upper limit? How much money is too much money?
The real important thing is the reasons we have for putting an upper limit and the reasons would point us into a certain direction for an upper limit. So in the book I do give an because otherwise people might say yeah I agree with limitarianism let's put the limit at 1 billion but I said no 1 billion is way too high so I propose in the book two limits Is a political limit of 10 million euros in a context such as the Netherlands and I should is because this means with a healthcare system that is regulated and is a private-public mix and also with a public pension system. And then there is a second limit which is the personal voluntary limits, which I put at 1 million euros. And that is really where, based on research I did with my colleagues from economic sociology, if you More money than that really doesn't add to your quality of life. The way we organize society should be structured such that we make sure that people
People are not accumulating so much that they go in the tens and the tens of millions, let alone billions. Additional moral appeal to people once you have a million, why would you keep any additional money? I don't know, 10 million. Sounds about right. I feel like I could be good with that. But then the question I would ask to you is, are you having a good life? Yes. Yeah, well, that's the whole point, right? I think if we were to really ask that very, very old question from the ancient Greeks, like, what do we need for a good life? We don't need all that money. Lay out the basic shape of the inequality problem today. How big is it? How unprecedented is it? It's a global issue and it's an issue within countries. Perhaps I can just give you first... For the US because the US is a particularly interesting case because it's a very very rich country and at the same time one of the most unequal.
That combination makes the US unique. So in the US, the bottom half of the population has 2.8% of all wealth, personal wealth. That means 70% of personal wealth in the US is in the hands of 10% of the people. So that shows a hugely unusual. Equal distribution. And I should say that the countries for which I have found the data, Is the same. I mean, the US is a bit worse, the inequality is a bit stronger than in other countries but this shape where you have a group that has almost nothing and then you have a middle group that has kind of roughly Proportional to the size of the group, but then you have this 10% that has between 50 and 70% of all... Wealth is what we see in the world.
Inequality in America in 2024 compared to America, say, right before the Great Depression, or even France right before the Revolution. Where do we stack up relative to those moments in time? - So I'm not a historian, but what I've read is that inequality has been a problem that we had for centuries, but there's... Some very interesting research recently from Guido Alfani, an Italian historian who says yes, but that inequality was tolerated. Because when there was a societal crisis, the richest would step up. Have a sort of financial buffer frontier for the whole of society. And his worry is that right now, rich are no longer able to do this. So the inequality has been there, but it had a different character. That's basically one finding. However, after the Second World War, inequality decreased quite significantly.
And that was on the one hand because in the war definitely in Europe some fortunes were just erased because of the the damage of the war but also importantly because After the war there was a view, a societal view, that we should build up society together. There was just this... Public oriented, I think you can call it an ideology, but I use ideology in a neutral term so basically the dominant vision in society that we should build a welfare state and make sure that everybody can flourish. So after the war from '45... 'til the '70s, inequality decreased quite significantly. And it's since the end of the '70s in the US, and then a few years-- later in Europe, that inequality has started to increase again and it's still increasing. The obscenity of where we are today pretty colorfully in the book and the example you use I think at one point the rich person in the UK was a man named Leonard Blavatnik and he was
Worth something like 23 billion pounds. If you worked 50 hours a week. Between the ages of 20 and 65, week in, week out, year in, year out. You calculated that. Your hourly wage would need to be 196,581 pounds to reach 23 billion. That is completely insane. That's what I think too, and you know that the problem with numbers is that it's difficult for us to grasp numbers. So if we say somebody has 260 billion dollars, we really do not know what that is. So you have to translate it into something... Where we have a sense because we also have an hourly wage. Another comparison I made was how many flats could you buy with a certain-- Wealth that somebody has. And then if you see that people can just buy thousands of
a year. It becomes so obvious that inequality is really, I would also use the word obscene, yes. I mean, you mentioned even a figure like a billion or 10 billion or whatever. It's like Asking me to imagine a seventh dimension or something like that. Like my brain simply just has no grasp. That's why we need to translate those numbers into something that we can grasp. There are some first principles lurking beneath. These arguments about wealth. And I think it would be good to have you lay your cards on the table a little bit, because at the core of this, for me, are the. Value judgments about what we owe our fellow human beings and our responsibilities to the people we share. Absolutely. And where you land on that goes a long way in determining what you think about the inequality problem or whether you think it's a problem at all. So the committed libertarian
not limitarian, the committed libertarian does believe that the only thing that matters is the individual. The individual is Responsible for himself or herself and maybe their family, which is why libertarians only-- have a language of rights. They don't have a language of obligations. Yeah. And I take As a limitarian reject that pretty strongly, right? Yes, that is true. So there is a difference. In moral views and in ethics. There is also, I should say, really a big difference in how we view society. Legal rights and there's moral rights. And if we talk about this area of rights, what is the harm the world you have can do to others? And there I have several where I just document based on research by many other scholars that having... A lot of money actually results in harms to other people. Where there's blood stains on the fortune, wealth concentration tends to go together with...
Harm to ecosystems and climate so it doesn't go together with ecological sustainability. The third one is it undermines democracy. I believe, and there are more philosophers who believe this, that there are... Two really important factors that determine what we can achieve in life. Is luck. So luck plays a disproportional effect in what we can do with our lives. Why? There's a natural lottery. Our gene. Our inborn talents, health issues we were born with, none of this we had any control over. If you are very smart, but also if, for example, you have very high energy levels, you should not just say, Oh, everything that I can do with this is mine and I owe everything that follows. No, you should just be lucky and grateful because you just happen to draw a really good ticket from the natural lottery. Then there's a social lottery. Your parents, your teachers.
The place you grew up with, society you grew up in, we know for example from... From people who study child development that the first 1,000 days are really crucial in determining how somebody's life goes. The first 1,000 days is how can you give any responsibility to choices that people make when they're like babies? If luck has such a large impact on... On what we can achieve in life, I think the right attitude should be one of feeling lucky, feeling grateful, and not claiming that whatever follows from this, that it's your. And that you should be able to take whatever follows from the activities that you can do with the good lottery tickets that you got. So that's luck. I really strongly agree with this point. And I think it's unbelievably important because the reality is that some people are smarter or more talented than others.
It still makes no sense to use words like deserve since we're not really responsible for our parents or our genes. But it's very hard for people to accept that the most important— And determining factors in our life are simply beyond our control. And if you really take that on board, it has to transform your moral and political worldview. Absolutely, I totally agree. So there was a woman I spoke to earlier this week who just said Once you see it, you get it. But you have to be able to really accept that. Luck plays such a big role in our lives and I mean, I think it would be good if successful people would actually be more open about this. I do think people should still feel proud of their accomplishments. I don't want to kind of say nobody can be proud of what they, I think people can be proud and they should be proud and we should celebrate the great things that people do for others and contribute to society. But we should not jump from that to saying, oh, but then you can have whatever the
Arc it gives you with those talents and those efforts. Well, I don't want to skip past this too quickly because I know when you make... A claim like no one really deserves their wealth. There's a lot of resistance to that. And I think the case against inherited wealth Right in the sense that that's not really earned or deserved in any sense, but it is less obvious when we're talking... About someone who worked hard or built a business and became a millionaire. The whole bootstrap fantasy is kind of a fan. But there are real examples of people who did that. Now, when you're talking about someone like that... And you say they don't deserve that wealth, a lot of people are gonna be irritated by that. What is your response to people who feel that that is just wrong? So I understand that people will be irritated because it's I'm saying something that goes against the mainstream view
I do think that effort and taking initiative and then becoming successful does give you a moral claim to have more. So I'm also not a fool. Out-comic-liter-ian who would say no everybody should get exactly the same. That seems to me really an untouchable position because it would, for example, no longer express any recognition of the fact that people Who work so hard can also deserve more. But the question is yes, they can deserve more, but not endlessly more. And that's where I just think once you take that view on human nature that so much is reducible to desserts, you do Who also acknowledge that there is a limit to how much we can claim. So much of what we can achieve in life also depends on what the previous generations have built for us in terms of infrastructures.
Social and political institutions, technology, and many of those innovations came from people Seeking. They were also sponsored or subsidized by the government. For example, the work of the Italian and British economist Mariana Mazzucato lays out in detail how the American... Ambition to put a man on the moon has led to so many technological discoveries in other areas where everybody has profit from in many, many industries and fields of life. So many people who now are economically very successful have not just had that love. From the social and natural lottery, but I've also built on what previous generations have done, including some that really have made discoveries and innovations that they've just given to society. And this is something you acknowledge in the book. You were told by lots of people, including some of your colleagues, that poverty is what really matters, not inequality.
So that should be the focus. And that's not really criticism of your thesis, but it is raising a question about priorities and how best to reduce suffering. So what is your that argument, why is inequality really the cardinal problem here? So I wouldn't say that inequality is more important than poverty. I actually do think that addressing poverty is. World priority over addressing other concerns about the distribution of money and other goods. But many people have felt... Oh yes, we're going to address poverty. So we see, for example, on the global scale, we see a reduction in... In the number of people who live in absolute poverty. Now, we should be very clear. That the absolute poverty line is just above $2 a day, but not what you can do with $2 a day in, say, a year. Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar, but it's what you can do with $2 a day in the US. So, that's an incredibly low portfolio.
If you use that poverty line, yes, the number of people no longer living in poverty has gone down. But my argument is that that's not just what we should ask. We should ask of all the different worlds that would have been possible. We've had this narrative of globalization that this would lift everybody out of poverty, we let the entrepreneurial people be very entrepreneurial, they will become rich, but that's fine because everybody else will benefit. It's true that the others have benefited a tiny bit. They've still taken the line share. That means we could have lifted many, many more people out of poverty if they hadn't taken such a big piece of the pie. But that means inequality and poverty are related. And also, I mean, if you think about this in mathematical terms, in the end, it's a... Distributional issue. We really must envision in front of our eyes a distribution and poverty is the left hand side of the distribution and the...
Riches are the right hand side, so that means if you just reallocate, you'll lift people out of poverty. So there is this great book. By the Princeton sociologist Matthew Desmond. So he argues when it concerns to policy. It is a zero sum game. So yes, if you decide to lower the taxation on those who have capital, so the richest, it means you have much less money for social housing or food programs. So on. So it is a choice. The inequality and the poverty hang together. When we get back from the break, we discuss why inequality could be a serious threat to democracy. We'll be right back. Support for the weeds comes from not another politics podcast from the Harris School of
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Against limitless wealth primarily ethical or political? And I realize it can be both and very likely is both, but what I really mean is do you think this is something we ought to do because... It's the right thing to do or is it something we must do because it's politically necessary to do it? That's a great question. So in the book I presented as both ethical and political. I I think that we are in the political arguments really strong in the sense that I just don't see how once you acknowledge the importance of luck and the fact that we basically benefit so much from it. From what previous generations have done. Why, if we are lucky that we've gone very rich, why would we keep that money? Than do something good for people who had less luck. That moral appeal I find very strong. There is the additional dimension that you have political feasibility questions, like what's possible. And there I really think that if we were to already execute...
Politically, what people who have slightly more moderate views and minds, they argue for just higher progressive taxation, that would just be a step in the right direction. I think that is absolutely necessary because the problem is becoming so big that I really think that there's gonna be increasing tensions. Like a so-called realist I think you have to do something about it if your is that democracy is sacred. Yet then I think you should really consider whether we need... Limitarianism and if your answer is no then you have to give me an account on how you think you're going to protect democracy - Is inequality of the sort we're staring at today especially destructive for democratic society?
This is something you deal with a lot in the book. If you have a lot of money, and depending on the protection of the political sphere in a particular country, you can basically buy politics. There are different ways in which you can do this. You can fund candidates. Political parties. There you see a big difference between Europe and the US because in the US it's almost Endlessly. You can just spend millions on political parties in the Netherlands. For example, there was legislation proposed in parliament to widen the tax deduction. In the inheritance taxation if you were giving a company, a firm, a family firm to your children. Normally we have inheritance taxation for everybody, but if what you give to your children is not money or paintings... Or jewellery but you give a firm, there is a pretty big tax deduction. And there was a central right party that had proposed to increase its tax deduction.
Because there's also the worry that it's unfair. And then there was an entrepreneur who gave a 1 million euro donation to that party at the same time. Of course, one cannot prove causality. We will never be able to trace down exactly where that money goes. You can just only speculate, but I think reasonably speculate, that there was a certain motivation for that donation. And what happened then was that all political parties except the extreme right agreed that we should Not want to have this. So they limited the amount of money that any person can give to a political party to one 100,000 euros per year. But still we see, we just had elections a couple of months ago, we see that Entrepreneurs who have millions and millions find ways around this. So that means we can... Build those walls, but still they find ways around this. So what we should do is to make the opportunity.
Cost of spending money high so that you don't just give money to a political party because you have so much that it is worth. Really doesn't matter whether you give 100,000 euros, but that you feel it. I think is relevant here, and it may be worth you just unpacking a little bit. Limitarianism rest on the fundamental philosophical insight that markets and property are social institutions. That's a really important point. What do you mean? So I think actually philosophically the best way to try to impact this is to just say, okay, let's take somebody who's now and billionaire and put them together with a handful of his or her friends, though most of the time it's his, on a deserted island. I mean, what can they generate in terms of wealth? So it shows that property and wealth are only possible because we all call
And property especially it's a legal institution but it's also political in that political rules and regulations decide what the conditions of property are. But the idea of... Libertarians that you can say that property is yours and that it's a sort of a natural right or something like that, why would that be? I just think it's like a premise that they just take for granted. If you look at society, we see that we create things together and also we respect each other. Property. And that is because we are together in a social contract, which means our respective You have a house, I will not enter it, but that means we are together in a society and that means we have to decide on a set of rules. Obvious and incontestable observations, but to the American mind it is so an athlete.
I mean, I remember years ago, Barack Obama made some statement to the effect of, you know, you didn't build that on your own. And he was making the same point you're making, right? That we're all born into a community with infrastructure and resources and help. And we have teachers and friends and parents and all this. And it was like, I mean, there's a whole. I mean, it was as though he was suggesting that, you know, the parents should forfeit parental rights to the state or something like that. And it was just, it crossed a kind of red line in our discourse and it's just. But I think the fact that there's such a red line really says something about the fact that we should have this conversation in much more detail with many more people. If people then start to say things like, okay, the state is going to get your children, they're pulling it into a direction that makes it look ridiculous because they do not want to And I think the other really important thing how I would understand what you just described is
that we are so unaware, and that's not just in the US but any country, of what the... Mainstream ideologies and again I must emphasize I use ideology as a scholar so I don't use it in a pejorative way like something really bad. I think it's unavoidable that there is a dominant view in society about the individual, about society, about what is a society... About material wealth, about success, about limits to the markets and everything else. So we have these views and the view we currently have... Scholars call that neoliberalism, and it didn't fall from the sky. Really interesting is that we have this historical work of historians of ideas who've actually documented where it comes from. Well it is because there were thinkers They came originally from Austria and some other European countries, Friedrich von Hayek and Friedrich von Friedmann.
And all these friends and then of course much later you had A.M. Rheins who have really spread these... Views in society and we should say with the help of their very wealthy friends. Also be aware of how dominant ideas just spread in society and that we may have to question them. Yeah. The problem, right, is economic power invariably becomes political power, and then that produces a very corrupt and unequal system. And these are such old insights. Even Aristotle noticed, you know. That you can have some rich people and you can have some poor people, but you better have a robust middle class because if you don't, the political physics just doesn't work. It's not sustainable. This movie has been replayed many times.
Over history. I totally agree. So in certain sense, much of what I say is not novel at all. Actually, you'll have to do it. Was played, who said that in order to have political stability, societal stability, we should limit the inequality. Between those who have leased and those who have most to one to three or four. My limit is much higher than what Plato proposed. Philosophers were wrong about a lot. I mean, yeah, they didn't get the slavery question, right? And the women's question Yeah, among many others. But, but I will say this, so many of their insights have held up so remarkably well and certainly the idea that is more than a form of government. It's more than a process for choosing leaders. It's a shared way of life, and the operative word is shared. The problem with such vast inequalities is that
Citizens are essentially living in alternative worlds, and the corrupting effects of that are just immense. I don't think it's defensible, and more importantly, I don't think it's sustainable. I think you're totally right. So there is an interesting paper that Deborah Zett, professor of philosophy in Stanford wrote where she argues that democracy requires basically to bring people back together and also contribute to society. So she argues For compulsory civil service because she says, Democracy is not just your right to vote. It's also to know that you're part of a country, that you contribute to that country, that you get something from that country and that we are doing this together, which some people might say like...
What does compulsory civil service have to do with limits to wealth? But it is because the problem with this wealth concentration is a problem for us in society and also for the planet. And that means we have to think about society. Like what kind of world do we want? Those big questions, we kind of as citizens seem to on a large scale to have given up on thinking about this. We've given up to ask the ultimate question of the ancient Greeks, what is a good life? And why are we no longer asking that question? I think one reason is because neoliberal capitalism has really... May they see ourselves as individuals who are consumers, investors in our human capital, and so on. I would certainly grant that there are cases where people...
Really do work harder than everyone else, where they really do earn their wealth, where they play the game by the rules in place and they win, as it were. But I still think even those arguments fall apart if we reach a point at which the existence of wealth threatens... The stability of the system that made the creation of that wealth possible in the first place. And I think if we're not quite there, we're inching perilously close. Yeah, and I think the super-rich notice themselves. So there's this really frightening but at the same time unbelievable story of Peter Thiel, the German American who Who now has bought a plot of unspoiled lands in New Zealand. Of course he did. Why? Because if we get to the moment of catastrophe, he can take some of his friends and-- to New Zealand and then survive there. So that means that the super-rich themselves.
We also know they are building and buying bunkers. So they know that there is a real threat to society. Ideas we know it's one counter proposal is that we can deal with the problem of political inequality without imposing limits on wealth right that with the Anti-corruption laws, if we removed private money from campaigns, we could prevent the uber-rich from buying disproportionate political power. Now in the book you argue that that is incomplete, are not... Efficient. Why? All were robust enough, then I think we don't have a democratic case for a limitarianism.
Walls can be robust enough. That is a problem that the rich people always find ways around the regulation. You could, for example, also forbid the sale of passports, because that's another way in which democracy is for sale. But how about I mean, how would you be able to avoid that the super rich buy up media, of course you can and we should. Impose regulations on monopolies and power concentration in the media. My argument is that we should have both these things. I mean, we see that democracy is seriously under threat right now. It's not like let's go for the best possible... Measure and hope that that will do the trick we should have, use all the measures we currently have because In more and more countries there is a serious risk of autocracy. So why not just set a maximum wage? Why wouldn't that get the job done? Okay, so yeah, that's a good one.
I don't think that's gonna be enough because wages is only one source of income generation. Actually, most rich people have like hardly any wages. They get their income from returns on capital. And then there's also the big question of inheritance. The two main sources of income streams for the super rich are inheritance and profits or returns on capital. I am actually in favor of a maximum wage and definitely for CEOs because they can earn up to dozens of millions per year. I think in Harris... This is a very important discussion we should have, and the other one is profit taxation and how to fairly tax income from capital, which we currently also don't have, and what to do about tax evasion. - Do you feel like... This is an idea whose time has finally come.
A point where there may be some real traction for something like limitarianism? Yes, yes I do think so. So yeah, so. Democracy is a really important one. I mean, but also the unfairness of the taxation structure. Tolerate tax havens. Why do we have tax havens? So one of the things that really strikes me is we have such aggressive measures to curb migration. Let people die in the Mediterranean Sea in Europe, people who try to reach Europe from Africa or we let people die at the border between the US and Mexico because we don't want people to move. But capital can just move. Why? It just don't give it priority. So I interviewed for the book also many very rich people, millionaires who tend to be more activist or who are quiet but have decided.
To give all their money away. And one of them is Marlena Englehorn, who announced last week that she's giving away her inheritance to a citizen's job. Jury, he will decide how it will be spent. Her main concern is democracy, that this should be democratically decided. And she told me in an interview I did with her that one of the things she finds striking is how we tend to focus on to punish. And to control those that are welfare recipients, but we do not do that with those who are trying to avoid... Taxation. There are many reasons why I do believe the time has come and one that we haven't yet talked about, which is of course climate change. We can't afford the rich in a planet that is on fire because although theoretically it's possible to be super rich. And to actually have an ecological footprint that is very small, it's not what we see. Super rich have lifestyles where they have up to thousands of tons CO2.
Emissions per year, whereas we should get them to like two or three for the whole of the world. The gains from the wealth cap should go first. If we were able to do that and suddenly there was a whole lot more money that could be redistributed towards society, what would be the priority? So I think it's up to democracy to decide this, but how can you choose to prioritize between fighting poverty and climate? The problem with climate and ecosystems is that there is a real time constraint. There's a real urgency to act really fast. So I would probably give that some priority, but that's just me speaking as a one voter. I think we should have an informed democratic debate and then society should decide. But it is a massive political debate. Local problem that the wealth already exists. It is already concentrated in a few.
Hands and there is no easy or painless way to redistribute it. Right? So where would we even start? Yeah, indeed, where do we start? I've also often heard this when I give talks to citizens, like where do we start? But I believe if the 99% would all do something, and we would pick out one of the actions that if taken together, they would make a change, that we could make a change. But so what this requires is that all of us. First of all, see ourselves as, again to use the term of the ancient Greeks, political animals. We should not just see... Ourselves as consumers or as workers or as a father or mother or son or daughter, we should see ourselves as citizens who together... Or make the society. And then if we take that role, then we could join a democratic.
Rule of law abiding political party or we could join a social activist group or we could join an environmental group or whatever but we could do something and the problem is I think that now the group of people who really try to Fight for a better world. I think they're heroes, but it's not enough of them. More people should going in some way, those who fight for a better world. And there are many different ways in Can do this. You can even write letters for Amnesty International which is you don't have to go on the street or become an organizer. I think people also have a kind of a one-side-suit-all view on how you have to behave if you want to improve the world, but there are many, many different ways. For example, shareholder activists, men in suits who go to meetings of shareholders who then put forward green resolutions, who lobby behind the scenes for the big oil companies to basically...
Scale up their investments in renewable energy. There's so many ways in which you can contribute to a better world. Just pick one and go for it. You're hearing in my voice is just a little bit of cynicism because I've been beaten down by American politics. And the thing that always gives me pause as an American, because this is where I live-- Is sort of what we were saying earlier. There is this libertarian ethos that is so deeply wired into our national DNA. Each other as atomized individuals and I think that sets pretty firm boundaries on our political possibilities. Being too defeatist. You can call me out on that bullshit. Use the term DNA because that suggests it's unalterable or at least it's like the way it is.
Neoliberalism was, you could say, politically orchestrated. I should also say it took... For the neoliberal ideologists to finally seize power. So that means those who... Of us who want a post-neoliberal good world should also not hope that we will get changed like next year or the year after, that we also might have to go and work for decades. So that is of course difficult, but. That means that it is a political thing and the other thing is I am actually from nature a pretty pessimistic person But I just feel giving up. Hope is not an option. I mean I children and I also look at all these other children, all these, we should fight for their future and it's especially those... For those of us who have already an established life and who are relatively safe, we should be the first ones to stick out our neck. Thank you.
After one more short break, can we sell limitarianism to a reluctant American public? We'll be right back. As you know, American leftists love to mention the Scandinavian model of social... Democracy as the political lodestar. Do you have any thoughts on that as a viable? Example or model for us to replicate? I'm on two minds about this lodestar figure. I think the quality of life for most people. In a social democracy such as the Scandinavian countries is better despite that the average wealth is lower, but there's just much more risk sharing public goods and the
On quality of life rather than income generation, which is two different concepts. And also by investing in the social infrastructure. Actually you increase the quality of life of many people. But that indeed requires a different way to look at society. So I do think that's true. But we should also not think that those countries are perfect because inequality in those countries is also increasing for example There's also millionaires in Sweden and the surrounding countries that have their money in tax havens. So, I really think that the I think it is a problem for all countries, but unfortunately the data do show that the US is really in a really particularly bad situation. Yeah, we're real leaders on this front, aren't we? - You could take the lead also in changing it. - One podcast at a time, one podcast at a time. - Yeah, that's what I think, one book at a time.
One podcast at a time and we all try to do our best. In a country like America where there is so much, frankly, irrational panic about anything that smacks of socialism. There is this notion of the overtime window. My proposal is probably more radical than many other proposals, but I think it might make these other proposals look less radical. So, 'Limitarianism' is what follows from the reasons I give against wealth concentration. But even if one doesn't sign... To limitarianism, I hope that people will look at those reasons, because you can also argue for example for just less inequity. Or something more like a green deal or all these other proposals that are being discussed in the US based on those reasons and in the end
And even if people disagree, it's important to start again that political conversation also at a much wider scale. So of course in all countries we have, let's just call them kind of... Of intellectuals who are having this conversation. And actually, I think the American scene is really interesting. There are many great thinkers, but it doesn't really help if we don't. Reach a very large population and I've tried to write this book in a way to reach as many readers as possible without taking shortcuts that make them lies. And yeah, that's what we have to try to do. Well, like many things in the political world, there may be some kind of compromise. Between the system we have and the system we need. You know, we've had politicians like, you know, Is worn with her two-cent tax plan and Bernie Sanders offering a vision, an economic vision, that would get us closer to something sustainable.
Than we have now. Yeah, we should talk much more about economics, because as soon as the conversation goes about With identities and culture and the culture wars, the authoritarian right wins. Would get a real conversation about economics and the economic system and who benefits from this economic system, I think we might shift the electorate. For me to talk as a European in a country that has like so many political parties that you can find something you can vote for a party and your voice is not lost, which is of course different in the US. But it's Cochranepsie here. That's it. Yeah. I read Bernie Sanders' book and I had seen interviews with him and so forth and I know he's seen as radical and I read that book and I said, how can people think this is like Dream radical? No, it's just common sense. I mean, what he does is he keeps repeating the message.
He keeps reaching out, he takes advice on how to bring the message, and I just think more people should try to join this. But I think everybody has a chance. For example, you're making podcasts. I mean, people can forward. Your podcasts to Trends who may be less politically aware if I can put it that way and and just try I had student who emailed me saying my father votes conservative and I've given him your book for Christmas and And I think yes, I will People who deeply disagree with me to read this book. And I hope they finish it, of course. In this country, it's obvious that working and middle class people would benefit from a a limitarian approach and ultimately rich people would as well as you point out. But nevertheless, even working class, middle class people in large part, I think... Balk at some of these ideas, in part because they think they might be rich one day, or because they feel like...
They would never want to give any of their wealth away if they were rich. The whole dream of upward mobility Things spinning. Yeah, so what I'm hoping that just sharing some of these data, although of course there's a question how much data can do, narratives may actually be more important. To get a conversation going. But you know, what is the alternative? What is the alternative if you believe that there is a much more At our society than this one. - If we're not able to do something like this. To limit wealth in ways that you think we must, what do you think is the likely outcome? What is waiting around the bend for us? There is a group of multi-millionaires and billionaires who are activists all? So lobby and argue for increased taxation on the very rich. And they often have this so-called argument from the pitchforks. They say what we've of course...
Also seen for example with the French Revolution that if the super rich are no longer seeing themselves as part of society. And willing to contribute to society also relative to how strong they're showing. Others are so they should contribute more, that in the end the poor will rise up and come with their pitchforks. I found it really difficult to predict whether... That will be true because I'm not somebody who can look into the future, but it is a possibility. Possibility and the other one is that in the end the effects of climate change are now accelerated. ...so fast and of course we tend not to care about these Pakistanis... Who were drowning a year ago, but we do care when we see an increase in the fires in California, or we think about, oh, perhaps New York really should start to worry about the sea. And there is
interesting because it's not only that the rich have disproportionately, via their polluting corporations and their lifestyles contribute to this, but they also hold one of the keys. You would just use all that surplus money and use it for climate adaptation and... Massive investment in mitigation, use that money on which they're sitting now, could be used to save the planet and hence save humanity. So I'm actually hoping that. The effects of climate change might get people into movement and into demanding that that money is being used. Historically, when there have been big crises, we've called upon the rich to... Pay. So in the Second World War, the American president said that it was not fair that families who had sent their sons to The battlefields in Europe that they were risking to sacrifice their sons, where at the same time American entrepreneurs who had not sent anybody were making
huge profits and high wages from the war economy. So he proposed a maximum income tax of 100%. So that's an example of a limitarian proposal in the past, and I think he got somewhere in the 90s, 90 or 95%. Why was that justified? Because it was an emergency situation. And I think we are now also related to climate in an emergency situation. It's only that more people should Start to see it and feel it and understand it and perhaps that will be the way to change it. And I should say I do think we can do this. I wouldn't even call myself a limitarian, but I do think that we can just simply, as you were saying earlier, just simply reconceive. The market and private property as social institutions, and we can stabilize the system and find some kind of equilibrium, even if it doesn't involve placing a hard cap on wealth. I'm not sure that's going to happen. I don't think it will anytime soon, but we don't have to do that in order to, you know.
Ourselves on a more sustainable footing even if we just move closer to that. I totally agree. We're in a much better place and I think we can get there. Well I think we should hold on to that hope and get... All of us moving and doing stuff that moves us in that direction. Once again, the book is called Limitarianism, the case against extreme wealth. Ingrid Robens, thank you so much for coming in today. I really enjoyed it. - I enjoyed it too, thank you very much. Our producer is Jon Ahrens. Horry Just is our editor. Justin Ayala engineered this episode, and Alex Overington wrote our theme music. Alright, you know I want to hear from you. So tell me what you think of the episode. You can drop us a line at the gray area at Vox.com. Extra minute, rate and review the podcast. That stuff really helps.
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Transcript generated on 2024-03-01.