How did we end up with an infestation of billionaires?
Imagine a society with no billionaires.
Numerous countries have tried to accomplish this, but nearly every time they do, the United States intervenes, sometimes covertly like Reagan did in Central America with the contras, and sometimes overtly and explicitly, as JFK did with the attempted invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs.
We love and defend our billionaires and multimillionaires; after all, we have more of them than any society in the world. The result is that our political system has been corrupted to third-world levels, our middle class has been reduced to servility and deep indebtedness, and a UN representative who recently visited the American South was shocked to find infant mortality, lifespans and hookworm infestations as bad as in some of the world's poorest nations.
And this is the official policy of the United States.
Bill Gates, arguably one of our more benign billionaires, was recently on TV proudly noting that he and his wife have given away "more than $40 billion." Without specific government programs allowing monopolistic behavior and extending government intellectual property protections for extended periods (something Jefferson fought against unsuccessfully), Gates would merely be a multimillionaire.
Does society benefit from having billionaires? And if not, why do we "allow" (and in fact, openly promote) such wealth accumulation, and where did this all begin?
Prior to the agricultural revolution, roughly 7,000 to 10,000 years ago, virtually all of our ancestors lived as hunter-gatherers. As Peter Farb (Man's Rise to Civilization), Marshall Sahlins (The Original Affluent Society), Daniel Quinn (Ishmael) and others have documented over the years, their societies were broadly equal and egalitarian. They were what we'd today call "communist," in that the community was the first priority and individual accumulation of wealth was entirely subordinate to the needs of the community.
Potlatch societies across North America prior to Columbus, tribes across Africa (the San are most famous; see the movie The Gods Must Be Crazy), and even European tribes were very much based on the idea that the purpose of organizing into a tribe or community was to benefit all, rather than to benefit one family.
The purpose of government, and of an economy, for that matter, was to benefit society, rather than to create a class of the morbidly rich.
Jefferson was so enamored of the idea that his red-haired ancestors in the British Isles prior to the Roman invasion lived tribally and in an egalitarian fashion that he wrote extensively about Paul de Rapin de Thoyras's History of England, sometimes referred to as the first among the "Whig histories," which documented how tribal Brits organized their communities and societies in egalitarian fashion. Hume, the main British historian studied in Jefferson's time, who rejected the Whig histories, was, according to Jefferson, a "fraud."
While Jefferson and many of his contemporaries enjoyed their wealth, it was, as I document in my book What Would Jefferson Do, more of what today we'd call the upper middle class.
For example, John Hancock, the wealthiest of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, had assets worth a bit over $700,000 in today's money. The absolute majority of ratifiers of the Constitution in 1789 were farmers, teachers and others among the working class; the most wealthy more often opposed ratification.
Jefferson, like Washington, died broke. None wanted to emulate England with their multi-generational "landed gentry," and in fact, not a single fortune from that era lasted more than two generations. A billion-dollar insurance company may bear Hancock's name today, but there is no direct line from his modest wealth to that company.
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