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And why we should critique consumption, not wealth
What should billionaires do?
People love to criticize billionaire philanthropy, e.g. as “undemocratic”. I find this so weird. Given that billionaires exist, would you rather they spent their money on caviar, private jets and luxury yachts? I wish more billionaires (and millionaires, and upper-middle class folks like the fancy professors who level these critiques) spent less on themselves and more on others.
Now, maybe you would prefer a tax system that prevented anyone from accumulating such disproportionate wealth to begin with. That’s at least a well-meaning view. (Depending on the details, there’s a serious risk that it would actually do more harm than good, but that’s a whole nother debate we needn’t settle here.) But that view doesn’t justify criticizing billionaire philanthropy. It instead suggests a critique more along the lines of, “We should have a different economic system that prevents such great disparities of wealth from arising in the first place. But given the option set before them, the best thing for billionaires to do in the meantime is to give their wealth away to good causes.”
Indeed, one option is to donate to the US Treasury. But I don’t know anyone who seriously thinks that’s the best way to spend one’s philanthropic dollars. (I’d be curious to hear from any readers who disagree.)
The key point is that preferring a different system doesn’t justify criticizing people for making the best choice from among the options that are actually available to them, given the system as it is. You might as well criticize someone for rescuing a drowning child, on the grounds that someone should have built a safety fence long ago. Even if you’re right about the fence, it’s dumb and wrong to criticize acts of rescue given that there currently is no fence and children are drowning. By all means, advocate for future fence-building (if you’ve good grounds for thinking that that really would be for the best). But you should still support rescuing drowning children in the meantime.
You especially should not think it unjust to rescue drowning children, even if you think it’s unjust that there is no fence. Preferring better systems is compatible with approving of the best acts possible while the current system is in place. Otherwise, you’re effectively asking people to do worse acts in the meantime, and that’s just daft.
Wealth vs Consumption
Egalitarian ire tends to be directed at the wealthy. But I think it’s philosophically mistaken to treat wealth as the morally relevant property. There’s nothing unjust about taking a high-paying job and then donating it all to help the poor. Egalitarian ire would seem better directed towards a young scion who owns no personal property but is pampered by family and friends, flown around the world while indulging in all manner of luxury goods. As these examples suggest, what matters is not wealth, but consumption.
Of course, the wealthy tend to consume more. That’s the typical reason why people want to be wealthy. But there are exceptions. If a morally-motivated person sees an opportunity to make bucketloads of money (without violating anyone’s rights), I want them to take it and use the winnings to improve the world. Any ideology that claims it’s inherently wrong to make money is, I think, deeply wrongheaded and harmful. So it’s worth being clear on this.
There’s a nice section in Doing Good Better where (if memory serves) Will MacAskill talks about how lots of people think it’s morally lousy for a doctor to go into plastic surgery (for the $$) rather than a more helpful medical subfield. But this misidentifies the problem. If the plastic surgeon donated half their income, they could do vastly more good (e.g. funding multiple doctors in developing countries) while still living comfortably themselves. So while many plastic surgeons may well be morally lousy people, it isn’t because they “wasted” their medical skills on a lucrative but less helpful career. The real waste is in how they spent their earnings.
And, of course, the same critique applies to all of us.
P.S. As a systemic reform to make philanthropy more democratic (and democracy more philanthropic), support philanthropic vouchers to decentralize the public purse.