The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion It’s open season on the wealthy. But not every tycoon should be flattened.

Bill Gates in Davos, Switzerland, on Jan. 22.
Bill Gates in Davos, Switzerland, on Jan. 22. (Gian Ehrenzeller/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

It’s open season on the wealthy. Resentment of the rich, lately a feature of the populist right, is sizzling on the populist left, too, with the premise that “every billionaire is a policy mistake.”

The impulse underlying that slogan is right. Over the past decades, the gap between rich and poor has widened in this country, and the next president and Congress should take steps to reverse that trend.

But people should think twice before seeking to flatten every tycoon. It may seem counterintuitive, but billionaires can be good for democracy, and a bulwark against tyranny.

To understand why, think back in history — precisely two years back. Or rather, think back to what has happened since then.

The greatest fear in February 2017 was not of plutocrats but of a challenge to our constitutional norms. A newly inaugurated president was attacking the judiciary and the media. He seemed intent on bending the civil service to his will by discrediting it as the “deep state.” He appointed a commission to generate phony evidence of voter fraud that he would, presumably, use to enact changes in voting law to perpetuate his party’s rule. He was preparing to manipulate the census for the same reason. His Justice Department was using its awesome power to try to block a merger advantageous to a cable network he loathed.

The Republican-controlled Congress played along, staging phony investigations of federal law enforcement. It even enacted a wealth tax, well before Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) proposed hers — but its was a tax on the endowments of rich private universities, which Republicans saw as a bastion of liberal resistance.

Today, having captured the House and feeling optimistic about 2020, Democrats are focused more on how they might wield power than on Trump’s potential abuse of it. And maybe the threat to democracy has receded.

I think it’s a bit soon to relax — and certainly, before we move on, we should think about what will have given American democracy its resilience if it does emerge from this trial.

One piece of that answer — not the only one, by any means, but an important one — is our deeply entrenched, richly diverse civil society. Those private universities with the self-confidence that big endowments can bestow. Politically diverse think tanks that propagate ideas from governments-in-waiting while providing some accountability for the one in power now. An equally diverse array of media. Nonprofit foundations, testing and promoting policies that the government may not favor.

Other democracies envy the United States for this vibrant, independent, thickly muscled web of institutions and its check on government overreach. And these institutions would not exist but for the generosity of those billionaires and their millionaire fellows.

Not surprisingly, our feelings about this tend to vary by the case. Liberals are not happy when Murdochs or Mercers build up right-wing media but may look more kindly on progressive magnates saving or creating publications old (the Atlantic) or new (the Intercept). To state the obvious, we at The Post feel fortunate to have a wealthy owner, Jeffrey P. Bezos, who has given us the space and time to find our footing in the digital age.

Similarly, some liberals may resent the Koch brothers advocating smaller government but feel differently when George Soros advocates the decriminalization of marijuana.

There is in fact a long tradition of tycoons using their wealth to promote policies or foster research where government is absent or opposed. Some of their obsessions are wacky and fall by the wayside. Others end up having staying power and positive effects: Andrew Carnegie’s free lending libraries, Julius Rosenwald’s schools for black children in the Jim Crow South, Bill and Melinda Gates’s promotion of vaccines and other public-health measures that have saved millions of lives.

I’m not suggesting that most rich people are selfless or far-sighted. No doubt the rapacious Washington football team owner whose recent purchase of a $100 million superyacht caught Warren’s eye is more typical than are Bill Gates or Warren Buffett, who have pledged to give their fortunes away. The rich, virtuous or not, certainly shouldn’t be allowed to own the political debate, which is why we need public financing of elections, fuller disclosure of contributions and other campaign finance reform.

And for the richest 1 percent of Americans to own 40 percent of the nation’s wealth, up from 33 percent in 1962, is corrosive and unhealthy. A wealth tax may be unconstitutional and impractical, but you could promote greater equality with such measures as beefing up the estate tax, taxing capital gains at the same rate as other income and imposing a progressive consumption tax.

But we should also remember that private wealth over the generations has endowed our society with independent centers of power and thought that help protect our liberty.

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Read more:

Catherine Rampell: Elizabeth Warren wasn’t the first candidate to propose a wealth tax. Trump was.

Christine Emba: It’s time for the wealthy to watch out

Katrina vanden Heuvel: Warren’s push for a wealth tax could be a game changer

Megan McArdle: Elizabeth Warren’s wealth tax is no way to run government — but a good way to run a campaign

The Post’s View: Elizabeth Warren wants a ‘wealth tax.’ It might backfire.