Socialism and Sin

I’m not a socialist.  Not because I don’t think that this model isn’t attractive, but because of my understanding of human nature and the issue of sin.  Contrary to the popular optimism of socialism in general and particularly current advocates for socialism in America, history is one long description of humans wracked with sin.  Some of them wealthy, some of them not.  Some with good intentions and some not.  Utopian ideas rest on the idea that we will eliminate or overcome these traits so that socialism can function properly, otherwise it is doomed to failure.

This is a fascinating and brief article on how people who do like the idea of socialism see things.  Or at least how some of them see things.  I’ll just comment briefly on some of the assumptions I see inherent in this mindset.

The article is spawned by the split between the world’s richest man, Jeff Bezos, and his ex-wife, Mackenzie Bezos.  Since there was no pre-nup agreement, she is now in her own right a multi-billionaire, and has pledged to give a great deal – perhaps all – of that wealth away.

The author of the article thinks that this ought to be standard operating procedure for billionaires, and that this should be achieved both through taxation as well as changed social expectations for  billionaires.

It’s interesting to me that ultimately the goal of this author isn’t simply to increase philanthropic giving by the richest people in the world, but to actually reduce their overall net worth and prevent them from maintaining or increasing their net worth.  In other words, it isn’t enough to give some of your money away – you should give it away until you’re no longer a billionaire.  Since there are only 2000 or so billionaires in the world, this seems like a manageable process, I suppose.  But it also strikes me as arbitrary.

As the author states in the fifth paragraph of  the article, the goal is not philanthropy but the elimination of wealth inequality.  Philanthropy is merely one mechanism – along with higher taxes and altered societal demands/expectations – by which to accomplish this.  But why just billionaires?  Presumably, when we have eliminated billionaires through these mechanisms, the attention will then shift to multi-millionaires.  Anyone with a net value of over $500 million perhaps.  But then when that is accomplished, the focus will shift lower, to $100 million or more.  And where after that?  What will wealth equality look like?  When everyone has a million dollars in the bank?

It may sound easy and reasonable to demand that billionaires divest themselves of their money, but how low can you go before people begin balking at the demands made of them?  Frankly, the average middle-class family in America is vastly more wealthy than a stunning percentage of the rest of the world.  When do we start forcing them to divest themselves of their wealth?

I think a better articulation of the author’s real goals would be helpful here.  What is the expectation in terms of wealth equality, and how is it sustainable over time?  What are the mathematical models that demonstrate it is both possible and sustainable?  Alas, mathematical models are not so good at accounting for human nature and sin.

Also, let’s define what the author means by giving away nearly all of their wealth.  Is $900 million acceptable?  $100 million?  $1million?

It’s interesting that this process is to be vigorously monitored.  Watchdogs are to be responsible for insisting that such a divestment of wealth is not simply undertaken, but that it is undertaken well.  And here I’m confused.  If wealth equality is the real goal, then why is the concern over ensuring that well-vetted humanitarian programs are the recipients of the monies?  What if J.K. Rowling decided to just write out checks to individual people for one million dollars (or whatever the assumed amount of wealth equality will be)?

I assume that’s unacceptable because many people wouldn’t know how to handle that sudden windfall.  There would need to be support services and mechanisms to help them.  To prevent them from falling back into an inequal wealth situation.  More watchdogging and regulation etc, etc, etc.

I also find it interesting that the author feels that there is no need to invent new philanthropic organizations or  mechanisms, and those that choose to do so are castigated for this.  Wouldn’t you think that someone capable of inventing Amazon or Facebook might be equally skilled at coming up with new ways of doing philanthropy and addressing humanitarian issues?  Again, a curious insistence on regulation rather than recognizing that someone who amasses billions of dollars might be rather good at other things as well.

None of this addresses the issue that millions of dollars are donated annually to very good causes.  Yet despite high-profiling and large amounts of money, malaria is still a very real threat to much of the world and poverty does not seem to be appreciably abated in most of the neediest places.  How is throwing additional money at these problems going to fix them to a point where wealth equality then becomes feasible?

Good intentions can be derailed by sin.  Dishonesty, greed, envy – these are deeply woven into our human natures.  Hence the need for constant vigilance in the socialist future envisioned by this author.  But such vigilance seems ultimately to be inadequate.  I’m not saying that we shouldn’t try to improve the human condition, but simply forcing people to give up their money to other people hasn’t – historically – been very effective for very long.  Politics and economics alone are inadequate to dealing with our human situation.  Until we take seriously the theological aspects, we are doomed to continued failure.

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