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How about a “wealth line”?

As world leaders gather in New York for the 74th United Nations General Assembly, the world’s poorest nations will look for a greater share of the world’s wealth. Chris Chatteris SJ notes how the poverty line is often used as a measure of morally unacceptable poverty. But extreme wealth may be equally perverse, he says, calling on the ultra-rich to use their wealth to help solve the world’s most pressing problems, such as climate change.

The concept of a “poverty line” has long moved from idea to reality. Many countries have such a line, the threshold below which it is considered morally unacceptable to allow people to fall. Where exactly you draw this line is the subject of much discussion, but that there should be such a line at all is something now taken for granted in many societies and political systems.

The idea of a poverty line is defended by certain moral philosophers and economists. Hence it isn’t surprising that the notion of an upper limit to wealth is now emerging as an idea among thinkers of a similar ilk. If we have a poverty line, why should we not have a wealth line, especially if the two can be linked together for the purposes of an equitable redistribution of the fruits of the earth?

Common sense tells us that there’s not much more contentment and happiness to be gained by moving from being super-rich to ultra-rich.

No doubt the idea will be seen as a ghastly heresy by those of the free market persuasion for whom any economic “distortion” (quite a morally loaded term, if you think about it) is anathema. But there was a time when notions that we take for granted today were similarly dismissed as heresies – such as the fact that the economy of the world could survive the abolition of slavery or that the world can manage without burning coal, oil and gas.

Putting extreme wealth to more creative uses

The proponents of the idea of a wealth line, among whom is Ingrid Robyns[1] who occupies the Chair Ethics of Institutions at the University of Utrecht, start by making the point that the difficulty of setting such a line does not mean that it is unthinkable. Robyns quotes empirical research among ordinary people who are asked to respond to questions about whether they think that human well-being can be improved above certain levels of income and material advantage. As the income and material advantages go up, the proportion of people agreeing that no further happiness and well-being are gained, also increases.

Common sense tells us that there’s not much more contentment and happiness to be gained by moving from being super-rich to ultra-rich. In fact one might be inclined to suggest that the hoarding of more and more might have the opposite effect. The roots of the term “miser” and “misery” are not the same for nothing.

Hence, such thinkers conclude that, above a certain line, wealthy people have no need of more wealth. Above the wealth line, it is all “surplus” and should be taxed at 100% and put to more creative uses.

An obvious one is the upliftment of those below the poverty line through either direct or indirect redistribution. They argue that this upliftment is good in itself for the human dignity of the beneficiaries. It is difficult to argue against this in a country such as our own where people below the poverty line live lives clearly well short of full human dignity for want of enough food, adequate shelter, medical care and employment, which can fulfil these needs.

As a rider to this I would add that there are enough examples of ridiculously rich people losing their human dignity (Howard Hughes and Michael Jackson spring to mind) to make the point that redistribution has the potential to restore dignity to the giver as well as the recipient.

A wealth line can strengthen democratic systems

But there is a further argument, one springing from the desirability of strengthening rather than weakening democracy. The argument runs like this: a democratic society assumes a certain fundamental level of equality among every adult citizen. My vote is the same as your vote. But if I am extremely rich, I can use my surplus wealth to buy political influence. I can pay lobbyists to work for my political party and I can also fund media houses and think-tanks that support that party.

These are not theoretical objections; we just have to look at US politics if we can’t bear to look at our own. And if money consistently wins “democratic” elections, how democratic is that? This cynical question can lead to a generalised disillusionment that populist leaders love to manipulate in their favour.

… a democratic society assumes … equality among every adult citizen … but if I am extremely rich, I can use my surplus wealth to buy political influence.

A final argument for the setting of a wealth line is what we could call the “World War II argument”. When a society faces an existential threat, such as Hitler’s total war machine, the whole of society has to rally to counter it. So, during World War II, the rich and poor in Britain and its allied countries worked together, pooling resources, minimising their differences for the sake of victory. Healthy adults in wartime Britain received the same rations.

Millionaires and paupers were all called up to fight and earned the same soldier’s pay. Wealthy car owners parked their vehicles in garages and travelled on public transport so that the petrol could be used for the war effort. There was an unprecedented redistribution aimed at husbanding the wherewithal needed to defeat the Nazi threat.  

The existential threat today is the climate emergency, the “defining issue of our times” as the UN Secretary General recently called it. Vast resources are needed to transition from a fossil-fuelled economy to a climate-friendly one and at the same time mitigate the worst effects of the devastating climate change that is now inevitable. It would be highly unjust if we ended up with a “climate apartheid” in which the super and ultra-rich were able to buy themselves safe places while the rest of humanity faced a relentless culling from extreme weather events, hunger, disease and war.

Global solidarity for the common good

Three of the central planks of Catholic social teaching slide in nicely here – human dignity, solidarity and the common good. If humanity is to come through this climate crisis, we will have to face the problem not just as a technical and scientific challenge, but also as a moral one in which the human dignity of the majority of the world’s population must be safeguarded. This safeguarding will come only from a global solidarity in which those who have, share with those who have not, for the common good.

It seems to me that the idea of a wealth line is an idea whose time has come and which needs urgently to be realised for the preservation, not just of human dignity and democracy, but of the entire planet.

[1] Ingrid Robyns: What, if Anything, is Wrong with Extreme Wealth? Journal of Human Development and Capabilities. Published Online 24 July 2019.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.