Agora & Polis

The Function Of Billionaires


L. Rhodes

A recurring theme in this year's Democratic primary has been an intensification of the debate over economic inequality, focusing at times on the question: "What should we do about the billionaires?" To which some in the 1% have provided the answer: Nothing.

That's hardly surprising coming from billionaires on the right, where wealth is often equated with merit, and taxation with tyranny, but their counterparts on the left/liberal end of the spectrum — or who, anyway, would like to appear so aligned — have to be a bit more diplomatic about their resistance to talk of reform. In a recent Twitter thread, political writer and Time editor Anand Giridharadas has offered a brief but cutting analysis of their argument, most of which have arrived in a form he calls "economic concern trolling." The basic form is: "I'm not saying this because of what's good for me. I'm saying this because of what's good for you."

In the case of Leon Cooperman specifically, Giridharadas explains:

He has made his philanthropy central to his rejection of a wealth tax. If you tax his wealth, you'd be depriving needy people of all the philanthropic monies they would get from people like him.

You'd be hurting the public. It's not about protecting himself.

He cares about us.

Where Cooperman cites philanthropy, Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg points to medical research, financier Steve Rattner warns of the trickle down of regulatory harms, former Google CEO Eric Schmidt opines on technological innovation, and so on. The point in each case is that reducing their wealth would undermine their ability to use it for good.

Another way to look at that line of thought is as an argument for executive function. In biological terms, executive function is the ability of an individual to marshal their cognitive faculties toward some particular end. When you decide to do something, you're exercising your executive function. The clearest way to understand that function is to reflect on what happens when it fails: when, for example, you get distracted from the task at hand, or are tempted into a behavior you had sworn off.

When we talk about the executive of a corporation or institution, we're talking, by analogy, about the person who exercises the highest-order ability to direct the operations of the whole. And when the lefty billionaires of Giridharadas' analysis argue that they should be left in charge of their billions, they are implicitly arguing for the value of vesting executive function over the public good in the hands of individuals, rather than the cumulative, deliberative processes of a representative democracy.

It's somewhat ironic that this debate is unfolding in the context of a presidential primary. After all, the president heads the Executive Branch. There was debate in the Constitutional Convention over whether the United States should even have a chief executive. Would that lend itself too easily to tyranny? Would the president effectively become a monarch? What seems to have convinced them, ultimately, was the need for someone to exercise executive function — but only in circumstances when popular deliberation might prove fatal. The idea of Congress conducting war, subjecting each strategic decision to a floor debate and vote, seemed to them too unwieldy, so they assigned that power to the president — but not the power to declare war! The argument that large swaths of the common weal ought to be left to a handful of unelected billionaires who wield power only by virtue of their wealth runs counter to the basic precepts of the nation.