People agree that poverty is a problem. But extreme wealth also has problematic consequences and should actually be tackled, argues political philosopher Dick Timmer.

Nearly $200 billion. That is currently the net worth of Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon and one of the richest men on the planet. His ability is impressive, says political philosopher Dick Timmer. “$200 billion is more money than you would have had you earned $250,000 a day since the day Jesus was born.” And Bezos isn’t the only one with such a massive net worth; others — including Elon Musk (founder of PayPall, Tesla, and SpaceX) — are scrambling against it with similar abilities. And these super rich are only getting richer; the richest 500 people saw their combined wealth increase by $1.8 trillion in the 2020 pandemic year. At the end of that year, they owned about $7.6 trillion.


At the same time, hundreds of millions of people live in extreme poverty. That is, they have to live on (the equivalent of) less than 2 dollars a day. And while the wealth of the richest grows exponentially, the number of people living in poverty has been increasing again for some time. The World Bank even fears that the pandemic years 2020 and 2021 will result in it that their number will rise above 800 million.

Poverty is a problem, but so is extreme wealth

There is no question that extreme poverty – with the resulting problems such as malnutrition and limited access to care and education – is a problem. But extreme wealth is also problematic, says Timmer his thesis that he will defend at Utrecht University next week. And in such a way that intervention – for example by setting a wealth limit – seems justified. His dissertation thus builds on research by political philosopher Ingrid Robeyns (Timmers promoter, ed.), who previously conducted research into the moral limits of extreme wealth and suggested the idea of ​​a wealth boundary.

Unjustified inequality

“My dissertation is not a plea for economic equality,” emphasizes Timmer in conversation with “After all, it is not justifiable that everyone owns the same amount. But good reasons must be given for inequality.” For example, a common justification for inequality is that some people are very talented or work much more or much more efficiently than others. In general, it is agreed that these people also earn a little more. But what makes extreme wealth problematic is that the link between achievement and merit is broken and inequality is no longer justified. “Because if we allow inequality based on effort or talent, then it has to stop somewhere,” says Timmer. “For example, you can ask yourself whether someone can work 1000 times more efficiently than another. And even if that could be the case in theory, you have to ask yourself how likely it is in practice.”

Political inequality

So while inequality is defensible, the enormous powers of the super-rich are past that stage. However, the inequitable distribution of money and wealth is not the only thing that annoys Timmer. Extreme wealth – or rather the way it is used – also threatens political equality. “Earlier this year, a tech billionaire donated more than 1 million euros to D66 and the Party for the Animals, because in his view those parties wanted the best for the climate,” Timmer tells. “To my knowledge, money has never been used so publicly to pursue political ends. And that is at odds with political equality.” Because where ‘ordinary’ voters can only exert influence by coloring a box red on election days, signing a petition, or sometimes taking to the streets to protest, the super-rich can use their wealth to leave a greater mark on the decision. This goes directly against the idea that in a democracy everyone is equal and every vote weighs the same.

wealth limit

And so extreme wealth – just like extreme poverty – can take on problematic forms. Reason enough to limit wealth, according to Timmer. In his dissertation he argues for a wealth limit. “This creates a clearer link between what you earn and what you get. And more importantly, money that now hangs unproductively in the rich class can then be invested in society. For example in health care, education, infrastructure or other public facilities.” Taking some of the wealth from the super-rich and pumping it back into society seems justified on other grounds as well. “Extreme wealth often comes with high emissions,” says Timmer. “The emissions of the super-rich – because of their lifestyle or through the companies they own – are hundreds of times greater than those of the average global citizen. In that sense, too, taxing the super-rich with the aim of protecting and future-proofing the world is justifiable.”

Difficult to maintain

At the same time, Timmer acknowledges that introducing a wealth boundary is difficult. “Taxing capital is not that simple, because you can easily move it from A to B. That makes it a challenge to maintain such a wealth boundary.” It is at least as difficult to determine the wealth limit. “Is the limit at 1 million? At 100 million? From what amount does wealth no longer add anything or does it become a social problem?” In addition, there are also people who are concerned about the possible consequences that the introduction of such a wealth limit would have. “Some people are afraid that the economy will collapse,” says Timmer. Simply because the urge to earn a lot of money disappears. “I highly doubt that, but of course it also depends on how you maintain the wealth barrier.” And where to draw the line.

What is Extremely Rich?
If you want to curb extreme wealth, you must first determine how much wealth should be considered “extreme wealth”. There in the Netherlands – where more than 27 percent of private wealth is in the hands of the 1 percent – ​​a few years ago, Ingrid Robeyns, among others, research done. It found that about one in three respondents considers a family extremely wealthy if it lives in a villa, has a second home in France, owns two luxury cars, goes on vacation three times a year and has five tons of savings. The research also found that people don’t see extreme wealth as a problem per se, but they do struggle with its consequences.

Public support

The big question is, of course, whether there is social support for such a wealth limit. Timmer senses some enthusiasm in society, but also reticence. “You see that there is more and more criticism of multinationals and the choices that the super rich make.” He refers, for example, to the space race in which, among others, Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson are involved. “People are increasingly asking themselves: ‘Do we want this?’ At the same time, however, you also see that, for example, the inheritance tax (with which the size of inheritances can be limited in order to reduce economic inequality between different generations, ed.) in the Netherlands – and also worldwide – is still one of the least popular taxes. So the idea that extreme wealth is problematic is becoming more and more prominent. But at the same time, there is also a certain tension, because measures to limit extreme wealth can often count on little support.”

This limping on two legs is also reflected in the aforementioned study in which the Dutch were asked whether they saw a wealth limit. Eighty percent of the respondents did not think this was necessary. But a large proportion of those surveyed changed their mind when the question was phrased differently. “If given the choice: either more money to the super-rich or invest in public goods, they were inclined to choose the latter.” And also the very concrete statement that it is undesirable for a man like Bezos to have so many billions, could count on approval. “You can actually see that at the level of thinking people agree that there is a major issue here. But when it comes to solutions, a lot still needs to be done and we still have a decent political battle ahead of us.”