Politicians and pundits of the left have figured out who to blame. From AOC (above) to Bernie Sanders to Elizabeth Warren, there is widespread agreement that billionaires are the problem.
In so many ways, billionaires are perfect scapegoats. They’re few in number, secretive, have strange customs, and even though most of us have never met one, they still manage to find ways to make us hate them. It makes them easy targets for vilification.
The unsavory political strategy of rallying supporters by identifying and attacking a common enemy has a long and ugly history. The people drafted to play the villains can end up being harassed in the streets or in their homes. They may be subjected to mass arrest, reeducation, deportation, or exile. Sometimes they just disappear, and sometimes they end up in piles of bodies the size of Walmart parking lots.
The good news about scapegoating billionaires is that it won’t ever come to that. Unlike more traditional scapegoats — Jews, immigrants, Armenians, Muslims, Romani — billionaires can take it. Barring a highly unlikely French-Revolution-style reign of terror, billionaires won’t ever be subject to any real harm. Even if we confiscated 99% of Jeff Bezos’s wealth, he’d still be able to lead a more comfortable life than almost anyone else on the planet.
But that doesn’t make it OK. Because one of the defining characteristics of the scapegoat is that the goat is not the real problem. Jews and Romani were not the cause of Germany’s post-war misery. There was no Armenian rebellion against the Ottomans. The problems faced by those societies were not caused by those being blamed. It was all lies.
It’s much the same with billionaires. While there certainly are some evil people with lots of money, wealthy people as a group are not the cause of most problems that people like AOC, Sanders, and Warren are claiming to solve. The affordable housing crisis is not caused primarily by billionaires, and neither are high healthcare costs, student debt, or global warming. Poor people aren’t poor because billionaires stole their money. Billionaires may be worth so much money that we can imagine using their wealth to fix some societal problems, but that doesn’t mean they caused any of those problems.
And in practice, it may not be so easy to use their wealth. If we wanted to take all of Jeff Bezos’s wealth and use it for healthcare, student debt, and affordable housing, how would that work? Bezos doesn’t just have $200 billion cash on hand. He owns things, such as Amazon stock and silly space rockets. How do you convert Amazon warehouses into healthcare? How do you convert Amazon data centers into housing? How do you turn his rocket into student debt payments?
If it was just Jeff Bezos, we could force him to sell his stuff and turn over the cash proceeds to the government, but when you try to scale it up to the whole American economy, you can’t get around the fact that a lot of wealth has already been committed to create physical real-world stuff such as factories, train cars, and fiber optic data cables. The real-world resources have already been consumed, and there’s no way to turn them into something else.
Blaming billionaires for the problems of poor people is a lie, and taxing their wealth to fix those problems is a fantasy.