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A Village of Billionaires

January 22, 2013

Introduction

This post seeks to deal with the principle of “relative poverty” and demonstrate why the concept fails to have any moral value. The second issue this post deals with is the idea that the outcome of a “democratically elected” position isn’t necessarily “just”. Philosophers use the idea of a “thought experiment” to allow the reader to isolate a concept in order to think about it in a particular way. The example itself is less important than the concept it is seeking to analyse. 

A Village of Billionaires

There was a village that contained 20 families. Each family had an elected head who made decisions for their household in a committee. 10 of the families were billionaires, 10 of the families only had assets of £100 million. Each of the families lived in fabulous houses with swimming pools, tennis courts and vast living space. They had expensive cars on the drive way and their lifestyle was everything one would expect from a community with vast wealth. No-one was compelled to live in the village and each was free to leave if they so choose. Each family made an equal contribution to the common services that were available to the community such as roads, schools, street lighting, security and other services. A few miles outside the village lay another village with real poverty. There wasn’t enough food to eat, nor was there any basic medical or education provision.

The billionaire families in this community were the employers. They had made the families with assets of £100 million very rich. Their wealth derived from setting up businesses and taking risks with their own assets to create companies that made the other families wealthy. Despite this, the families with only £100 million felt they were “relatively poor”, after all their neighbours had 10 times their wealth.

As time went on, one of the Heads of a billionaire family died. He left his assets to his family who were another billionaire family in the community. This meant that now in the village there were 10 families with £100 million and only 9 billionaire families. At the following committee meeting a vote was proposed by a disgruntled head of a family with only £100 million. The vote insisted on the redistribution of wealth from the billionaires to the families that only had £100 million. The grounds for this proposal lay in the assertion that the families with only £100 million were relatively poor. Wasn’t it just that there was an equal distribution of wealth? Of course, there were no proposals for any wealth to leek outside the village to the other village where there were starving and dying children – that didn’t form part of the decision making. 

The vote was passed and fully in accordance with democratic principles – after all, the families with only £100 million were now in the majority. Shortly afterwards, the billionaire families decided to leave the village. Their business interests were closed and they set up a new village elsewhere.

Conculsions

It seems odd that for some people, the mere existence of a difference in income or asset levels makes them feel “something needs to be done” or that there had been an injustice. Perhaps the most surprising facet of those who cry “relative poverty” is the almost complete lack of empathy, compassion and drive to focus on absolute poverty as a counter balance to their claims for greater equality within their village. A village of billionaires shows the lie behind those claiming that inequality per se is something that should be addressed by State intervention. It seems absurd, for example that in the UK there are serious claims to prevent a cap on housing allowance in area where well off working families couldn’t afford to live.

Simon Hughes berated the government when they proposed to place a cap on housing benefit that had grown from £10 billion to £21 billion, suggested the cuts would be “hard hitting”:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-11616741

His concern about capping allowances, some in excess of £50,000 per year rent, appear both shallow, self serving and unethical in light of the claims of the starving and dying children in a village beyond our own. The “relative poverty” camp and its apologists have no moral claim to redistribution and their attempts at representing the poor need to be highlighted to give the lie to their position.

 It is often suggested that a decision reached by a democratic means is automatically just. The village of billionaires, however, demonstrates this isn’t necessarily the case. It also shows that decisions made in democratic forums can not only impose a tyranny of the majority on the minority but at the same time can negatively affect the majority also. The work of J.S. Mill in “On Liberty” provides a comprehensive account of negative and positive freedoms in this field. I am not suggesting that democratic decision making isn’t the most appropriate way to govern – far from it, I am however, suggesting that it doesn’t necessarily produce justice and freedom – two notions that in my view should always take precedence over majoritarianism. 

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3 Comments
  1. Three observations:-

    1) Envy is the ulcer of the soul. Socrates

    2) Simon Hughes is a slippery little gadfly, a mountebank and is totally untrustworthy ( search under simon hughes peter tatchell pink news )

    3) Baroness Thatcher had his number http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=okHGCz6xxiw

  2. LibDems have this outmoded reputation for being yoghurt-knitting, sandal wearing, tree hugging, eco-friendly weirdy beardy people in knitted jumpers. I have seen them in action at Election time: they can be very, VERY nasty…..http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/9827223/Lib-Dem-MP-condemned-for-linking-Israeli-treatment-of-Palestinians-with-Holocaust.html

  3. I remembered a quote by Friederich von Hayek: ‘ A claim for equality of material position can be met only by a government with totalitarian powers ‘.

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