The Case Against Extreme Wealth

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Pub Date 16 Jan 2024 | Archive Date 13 Feb 2024

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"A powerful case for limitarianism—the idea that we should set a maximum on how much resources one individual can appropriate. A must-read!"
—Thomas Piketty, bestselling author of Capital in the Twenty-First Century

An original, bold, and convincing argument for a cap on wealth by the philosopher who coined the term "limitarianism."

How much money is too much? Is it ethical, and democratic, for an individual to amass a limitless amount of wealth, and then spend it however they choose? Many of us feel that the answer to that is no—but what can we do about it?

Ingrid Robeyns has long written and argued for the principle she calls "limitarianism"—or the need to limit extreme wealth. This idea is gaining momentum in the mainstream – with calls to "tax the rich" and slogans like "every billionaire is a policy failure"—but what does it mean in practice?

Robeyns explains the key reasons to support the case against extreme wealth: 

  • It keeps the poor poor and inequalities growing
  • It’s often dirty money
  • It undermines democracy
  • It’s one of the leading causes of  climate change
  • Nobody actually deserves to be a millionaire
  • There are better things to do with excess money
  • The rich will benefit, too

This will be the first authoritative trade book to unpack the concept of a cap on wealth, where to draw the line, how to collect the excess and what to do with the money. In the process, Robeyns will ignite an urgent debate about wealth, one that calls into question the very forces we live by (capitalism and neoliberalism) and invites us to a radical reimagining of our world.
"A powerful case for limitarianism—the idea that we should set a maximum on how much resources one individual can appropriate. A must-read!"
—Thomas Piketty, bestselling author of Capital in the...

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this book tackles a concept that i have always believed in, and it does so convincingly enough, but i do think it should have expanded a little more on the possibilities that limitarianism brings along, particularly through the funding of public services and the subsequent improvement of the average citizen’s quality of life. still, i think it’s brilliant that its key aims and objectives have been compiled into a single book, and i truly hope it sparks a debate about the way our socio-economic reality works.

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"Limitarianism: The Case Against Extreme Wealth" makes a great case for limiting personal wealth, taxing the super wealthy and redistributing their resources to society. This might be an unpopular philosophy, but Robeyns does a great job illustrating he point with interviews and direct quotes from those with an excessive amount of generational wealth. It's a solid non-fiction read with a powerful concept. Thank you for NetGalley and Astra House for permitting me to read this work prior to its publication date.

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This is a very grounded and practical approach to solving the tensions from the massive wealth gap. The author strikes an excellent value between factual diagnostics and doable problem-solving.

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How much is too much? How much money is too much money? Ingrid Robeyns has a couple of figures: ten million; or, alternatively, one million.

“Limitarianism” is Robeyns’s answer to the big question of our time: how do we address the fact that the climate catastrophe is being driven by overconsumption, and mainly that by billionaires? Here’s a thought:

Suppose you work fifty hours a week, between the ages of twenty and sixty-five—week in, week out; year in, year out. How much would your hourly wage need to be so that, by the end, you’d have amassed $219 billion? (i.e., Elon Musk’s estimated assets in 2022) The answer is $1,871,794 per hour. Almost two million dollars per hour. Every working hour for forty-five years.

Robeyn’s limitarianism is a cap on individual wealth. Most people probably agree that there should be a cap of some kind, but few agree on the amount. Robeyns understands this, and says it is at best a “regulative ideal”—something to aim for, even if it can’t be achieved. Per Robeyns, limitarianism would require of three kinds of action: structural, to make changes to policies and to bring about equality; fiscal, through modifications of things like tax and benefit systems; and ethical. To my mind, that last one is where most of the trouble is: how do you persuade generations of Global Northerners brought up on capitalism to believe there should be an ethical limit to accumulation?

Strangely, Robeyns believes in maintaining things like the free market economy and private property, while arguing that people are not in fact entitled to limitless wealth. She gets around the problem by arguing that the wealth of high net worth individuals does not in fact belong to them. Perhaps one may consider how such individuals have acquired their wealth: through inheritance, through work (like Oprah), through start-up loans from their parents or relations, and so on. However, many have made eye-watering sums of money not through honest labour, but by cheating society and governments—you and me, in other words—through tax evasion.

To address the limits above, Robeyns proposes at least two: a political limit, and an ethical one. The political one is to be enforced by governing systems, so that any wealth above, say, ten million (Euros, pounds, dollars, or whatever currency applies) is forfeited to the state. This money can be given to other citizens (a hint of universal basic income, or the wealth sharing that some coutries already practise), or it could be used for projects that benefit everyone. A limit of one million (again, in whichever currency) is what Robeyns tries to persuade us (or, more accurately, extremely high-wealth individuals) is an ethical limit; it affords a good lifestyle for anyone and their children.

Robeyns has been talking about limitarianism for a while and, understandably, has received a lot of push-back, which she addresses in the book. However, and perhaps surprisingly, there are high-wealth individuals who are actively working to address the issue of limitless accumulation. Robeyns spoke to some of them both on and off the record for the book, including Abigail Disney, who has been vocal, as well as a group called Resource Generation.

An important point from the book:
[The] question we should really be asking is: how were the gains from globalization distributed? … As Piketty summarized, “slavery and colonialism played a central role in the Western world’s acquisition of wealth.”

The outrageous results of a 2021 study by Jason Hickel, Dylan Sullivan, and Huzaifa Zoomkawala show the flow of wealth away from the Global South to the Global North through “unequal exchange”. One of the measures Global North countries use is to outsource labour to the South, and then pay unfairly low wages. Another has been the use of things like coups to remove labour-supporting governments.
Hinkel et al estimate a loss of $62 trillion in the period 1960–2017, or around $9,951 per person (!) and a gain of $68 trillion to the North, or on average $65,517 per person.

This is the crux of limitarianism’s problem: The power of the 1 percent has become so great and their influence so outsized that they can no longer be held to account by governments. This is why it would be an uphill battle to make changes that would affect individual wealth. Perhaps this is why Robeyns’s arguments mainly appeal to ethics and morality.

Do I agree with Robeyns? I think anyone who isn’t a high net worth individual would support putting a cap on how much wealth you can hog: there should NOT be billionaires in such an unequal world, and there can only be billionaires because of inequaility. Robeyns’s belief in maintaining elements of the system that got us here in the first place would seem irreconcilable, however, with mine that we must burn it all down. Still, the struggle for a more equal world (and against those who are worsening the climate crisis) makes strange bedfellows; no matter how it looks, Robeyns and I are on the same side, along with Ajay Singh Chaudhary and Kohei Saito.

Read Limitarianism with Chaudhary’s The Exhausted of the Earth: Politics of a Burning World and Kohei Saito’s Slow Down: The Degrowth Manifesto.

Thank you to Astra Publishing House and NetGalley for access

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I was given access to an ARC through NetGalley.

The title says it all. This book builds the case for limitarianism, the idea that as a society we should impose a maximum on wealth accumulation, by drawing on ethical, philosophical, psychological, sociological, economical and environmental argumentation.
The text itself is quite clear, very easy to read, much less dense than what the theme would have one imagine beforehand. The author does a good job of bringing the discussion to the general public.
On limitarianism itself, I have to admit I'm quite primed to understand and agree with it, considering I have been arguing for some of the preoccupations and measures mentioned in this book for years.
Ingryd Robeyns' discussion appeals to anyone, including the super-rich - or even especially them - to understand the reasons for limitarianism and to adhere to it as a general idea and personal motto and then as a governmental reformation path. I found the ethical discussions, and the way it becomes obvious that a limit would be beneficial for those we usually imagine would be hurt by it, quite well put and interesting.

Despite agreeing with the general sense and argumentation, I do have some qualms with the book. Robeyns seems to fighting in that limbo of not being revolutionary - and actually making a case for reformation and the usual More state of nature references to our need for government and rules - and then failing to be specific on how to go from understanding to making limitarianism happen in the real world. As an icebreaker and being purposefully meant to be appealing, it's understandable why this is so - this would be read as pamphletarian and mean by those it wants to reach to if the proposals were too daring. But, from my perspective, I did finish this thinking that we will remain convinced limitarianism is a good and urgent idea and that it will never happen if we can't convince the super-rich themselves.

I'd recommend this book for most politically minded people, unless you are already very well read on limitarianism itself (you might still enjoy it or want to engage with it though, as I did).

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