Why Bernie Sanders, Hasan Piker, and Elizabeth Warren should open their wallets before they open their mouths
By Jason Brennan and Christopher Freiman
It’s been a bad year in public relations for Champagne socialists—or if you prefer, Neiman Marxists. The socialist Twitch streamer and Young Turks host Hasan Piker bought a $2.7 million house in Beverly Hills, complete with a swimming pool and an outdoor widescreen perfect for entertaining. Millionaire Aurora James designed Democratic New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s show-stealing “Tax the Rich” dress, which she wore to the $35,000-per-ticket Met Gala.
The phenomenon of egalitarians living in luxury while denouncing the evils of inequality is not new. In 2018, socialist Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders paid an effective tax rate of 26 percent despite campaigning on a platform that would require him to pay more than 40 percent. After taxes and donations, Sanders remains within the top 1 percent of U.S. earners and the top .02 percent worldwide. Curious observers may question why Sanders, a tireless critic of the 1 percent, doesn’t sell his $575,000 vacation home and give the proceeds to charity or offer them as a general donation to the U.S. government via pay.gov. The same goes for Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a longtime progressive who has a net worth of over $10 million and yet donated a mere $50,128 in 2018.
At first glance, the hypocrisy of rich egalitarians with their in-egalitarian lifestyles looks undeniable. They call for higher taxes on people like themselves because they think it’s unjust for some to have so much while others have so little. It seems wrong, then, for them to spend their extra money on themselves instead of donating it to the poor. After all, by the egalitarian’s own lights, the poor have a stronger moral claim to this money than they themselves do.
Put another way, rich egalitarians regard their excess income as unjustly held property. But it’s strange to demand that the state force you to give your unjustly held property to its rightful owners instead of just giving it to them yourself. If your neighbor drops his wallet, you should choose to return it to him, not wait for the cops to force you to return it. If the poor have a stronger claim to your excess income than you do, donate it to them—don’t wait for the IRS to take it (especially if you know they don’t plan to).
But perhaps champagne socialists can defend themselves. Egalitarians often say that inequality is a structural problem about patterns of the distributions of wealth, income, and status. Inequality is caused by unjust institutions, and so eliminating inequality requires changing those institutions rather than changing individual behavior. Indeed, Piker himself argues on Twitter, “The necessity of charity is an indication of systemic failure. It’s still useful to help out mutual aid orgs in the short term but that’s not how you solve structural problems.” He suggests, “Listen, if you’re mad at me tax the fuck out of people like me.” Realizing economic equality, he thinks, requires changes in the tax code rather than changes in individual giving behavior. Fixing injustice requires us, not Piker, to open his wallet.
Yet as the Oxford philosopher G.A. Cohen pointed out in his book If You’re an Egalitarian, How Come You’re So Rich?, the simple fact that you can’t fix an unjust institution doesn’t imply that you shouldn’t fix some of the harms caused by that institution. Suppose we discover that cops are systematically framing innocent people by planting their fingerprints at crime scenes. It would be absurd for a jury or district attorney who knew this to refuse to release a single innocent person on the grounds that saving one victim doesn’t fix the system. Similarly, suppose the gap between rich and poor is unjust—the rich have too much and the poor have too little. It would be morally wrong for a rich person to refuse to give some of his excess to the poor on the grounds that the donation doesn’t fix the tax system that enabled him to accumulate the excess.
A related defense of Champagne socialism alleges that individual donations are merely a “drop in the ocean,” to borrow Cohen’s phrase. Even donating a million dollars to the poor won’t make a meaningful difference to the overall distribution of wealth and income. Sometimes arguments like this make sense. Suppose a person says, “Climate change is a serious problem” but doesn’t bike or drive an electric car. He can justify this by saying, correctly, that a decision to bike or switch to an electric car would have literally a negligible effect on climate change. It would help no one. Climate change is arguably a classic collective action problem where what matters is what we do, not what any one of us does.
It’s true that the rich egalitarian cannot personally eliminate nationwide inequality by donating her excess income. It’s true that if she does so, the change in distribution of income or wealth will be negligible. But—unlike the climate case—she can in fact make a significant positive difference about something she cares about: the well-being of the poor. An individual cannot eliminate inequality, but she can save a life or end someone’s deprivation. When a rich egalitarian donates to the poor, she transfers money from someone who she believes shouldn’t have it to someone who she believes should. A single donation may be a drop in the ocean, but sometimes drops in the ocean are morally required. Releasing the wrongfully convicted prisoner may not have a meaningful effect on the total number of wrongfully convicted inmates, but you still have a moral obligation to release him.
What’s more, taking the “drop in the ocean” argument seriously would mean that people are under no obligation to do many of the things that egalitarians think they should—such as voting for Bernie Sanders. Your vote for Sanders won’t determine the electoral outcome, but he urges us to do it anyway. Of course, Sanders encouraging others to give him power helps him, while his donating money would hurt him. Sanders might say that if enough of us vote the right way, he can be empowered to help reduce inequality. But if enough of us donate the right way, we can reduce nationwide inequality and poverty.
An egalitarian might respond that the real reason to prioritize large-scale, systemic change isn’t to enrich the poor but to end capitalist exploitation. A donation to charity won’t do that. The Brooklyn College political theorist Corey Robin asserts: “Under capitalism, we’re forced to submit to the boss. Terrified of getting on his bad side, we bow and scrape, flatter and flirt, or worse—just to get that raise or make sure we don’t get fired. The socialist argument against capitalism isn’t that it makes us poor. It’s that it makes us unfree.” Similarly, Mathew Snow writes in the August 2015 Jacobin article “Against Charity”that focusing our moral attention on effective individual giving ironically “implores individuals to use their money to procure necessities for those who desperately need them, but says nothing about the system that determines how those necessities are produced and distributed in the first place.” If Piker forgoes his pool to donate the spared income to the poor, he still wouldn’t liberate his beneficiaries from domination by the capitalist class. Maybe they can now fix their Chevy’s air conditioning, but they’ll still drive it to work to labor under the boss’s thumb.
Even if we grant this questionable critique of capitalism, the objection doesn’t work. There’s no doubt that a rich socialist can’t singlehandedly abolish capitalist exploitation; however, she could reduce capitalist exploitation on the margin. She could, perhaps taking a suggestion from the Harvard philosopher Robert Nozick, use her millions to finance a worker-controlled firm that operates according to democratic socialist principles. Nozick argued that labor unions looking to liberate workers from employer domination would do well to take matters into their own hands: They could empty their treasuries to start firms that make workers their own bosses. Decisions about what to make, whom to hire, and whom to fire could be made collectively, with each worker having an equal say. From the socialist perspective, surely this DIY strategy is more promising than lobbying a capitalist for more scraps from her table.
While Nozick focused on labor unions, his point generalizes: Rich egalitarians could use their millions to fund worker co-ops. We’ll note that this was precisely the sort of arrangement that Nathan Robinson, author of 2019’s Why You Should Be a Socialist (All Points Books) and vocal advocate of unionization, allegedly attempted to shut down at his magazine. (Robinson later apologized for his plans to reorganize the magazine while denying that he “tried to prevent [Current Affairs] from becoming a cooperative.”) Of course, democratizing a single workplace would leave capitalist economic structures intact elsewhere. Still, that you cannot eliminate all exploitation or oppression is no reason to not eliminate some exploitation and oppression, and it’s certainly not a license to oppress workers yourself.
The New York University philosopher Thomas Nagel offers a different rationale for keeping his money: It’s unreasonable for him to shoulder the burden of donating his excess income when others do not. This sort of argument is plausible when we’re talking about a competition. For instance, Sanders advocates public financing of elections yet accepts private campaign funds. We can justify this apparent inconsistency: You can call for changing the current rules while not being obliged to disadvantage yourself by following your ideal rules now, especially when doing so reduces your chances of reforming the rules. That’s true of football and elections.
But distributive justice isn’t a competition like an election. The point of being an egalitarian isn’t to defeat others; it’s to help those in need. If people are drowning for lack of life preservers, you should toss them yours to save their lives, regardless of whether your neighbors are doing the same.
Consider how bizarre the “fairness” argument sounds when applied to virtually any other question of justice. Imagine that you’re pleading with a kidnapper to return the children he’s taken and to quit kidnapping for good. He replies, “But this would be unfair! I won’t return these children and retire from kidnapping until everyone else does too.” This argument is absurd. As the saying goes, two wrongs don’t make a right. Noting that other egalitarians aren’t giving away their wealth is neither a justification nor an excuse, as our youngest children can tell you (and trust us, they are hardly moral savants).
Nagel also claims that deciding when and where to donate your money is “more irksome” than paying your taxes. Is it, though? Storing our credit card information to allow for monthly charitable donations is far easier than filing our taxes. And figuring out which charities effectively help the poor isn’t particularly irksome either, because charity evaluators have already done that for you. To give one example, Givewell.org’s Maximum Impact Fund distributes funds to those charities that it concludes do the most good per dollar donated.
To be clear, we aren’t making a banal point that people sometimes work within institutions or structures they reject. An anarchist has little choice but to drive on public roads. A libertarian might send his kids to the public schools his taxes pay for. A Marxist might despise private production but still work at a for-profit firm. People cannot be expected to martyr themselves for their ideologies and are entitled to live decent lives given the surrounding structures they cannot control.
But Neiman Marxists who donate their excess income will still live decent lives. Our point is not that they ought to immiserate themselves to become martyrs for their cause. We claim only that they should give away the amount that they themselves regard as appropriate to tax away—money which, by their own standards, they shouldn’t have in the first place. (In 2018, Sanders deducted $18,950 in charitable donations—just 3.3 percent of his total income.)
Lastly, it is especially wrong for someone to usemoral posturing to become rich and famous, and then, instead of avoiding the behavior they claim is wrong, to revel in it or engage in it far more than others. There is something ridiculous and rotten about the fundamentalist Christian pastor who becomes famous for condemning extramarital sex but who also employs a harem of prostitutes. Or consider government leaders who demand social distancing and masking for the masses but have large, unmasked parties while their states are on lockdown. Or the public intellectual who decries the commodification of everything but demands $30,000 and first-class airfare to give guest lectures on commodification. When the disconnect between personal behavior and expressed ideology is this dramatic, and when the person gets rich and famous for expressing that ideology, we have to wonder whether he was ever sincere or was instead merely trying to promote himself.
The reality is that for many people, publicly expressing ideology is not about trying to say what’s right and wrong; it’s about trying to look good to others. It’s moral masturbation, not moral theory. Rather than helping others—which might cost them something!—they advocate helping others. Rather than ameliorating some of the bad effects of injustice—which might cost them something!—they advocate for justice. They then consume the warm glow of cheap altruism and earn the admiration of like-minded peers, all while living a self-centered luxury lifestyle.
The George Mason University economist Tyler Cowen once noted that in the United States, cities’ politics and behavior seem to be at odds. Egalitarian cities with fairly equal distributions of income tend to have a conservative ethos, while cities that have massive disparities in wealth and that shower rewards upon high-status people—such as Los Angeles and New York—tend to have left-wing and egalitarian ideologies. One possibility is that wearing a left-wing ideology is a sort of cover for living a right-wing life. Perhaps this partly explains why elite universities are so left-wing. They sell elite status, but they cover this up with incessant praise of social justice. It could be that Harvard is a right-wing institution that undermines social justice, but if it never stops talking about equality, maybe you won’t notice.
Consider the American ritual of giving an expensive engagement ring when one proposes marriage. Among other things, the ring serves a signaling purpose: The fact that the proposer was willing to bear a cost, to sacrifice two months’ salary for a trinket, is strong evidence that this person is sincere and committed. Generally speaking, when people bear a real cost to live by their professed views, as when religious people abstain from delicious food, that is evidence they mean it.
In the same spirit, Piker could sell his Beverly Hills house and give most of the money to charity to show his commitment to equality. Talking about socialism is cheap (indeed, even lucrative); a $2 million donation is not. Yet rather than bear a real cost to really help the poor, Piker and other prominent egalitarians adopt a philosophy that they think demonstrates their good hearts but that allows them to live high while people die.