Peasants and Kings
November 20 2022
Imagine a medieval kingdom, perhaps one that was around in 1000AD. Around 90% of the people in that kingdom were peasants and worked the land. In order to grow food, they had to till the soil and plant the seeds, care for the crops, and then spend large amounts of time and energy harvesting it. For all of that work, the peasants got food for the year and were maybe able to afford a few extras, after taxes of course.
Now also in this kingdom was a king and a bunch of nobles and princes. Such noblemen didn't have to work and were able to afford the greatest luxuries available a the time: meat every day, comfortable clothes, entertainment, books, etc. These people did not earn their position, they did not work harder than the peasants, and the kingdom is most likely not improved by what the noblemen do most of the time, which is enjoying themselves.
Of course, this situation is incredibly unfair. The peasants do almost all of the work and have very little, while the noblemen do almost no work and live lives of luxury. In addition, the noblemen oftentimes make the peasants lives even worse by going to war with one another or by extorting the populace with taxes or by allowing bandits to run free.
So the peasants, one day, decide to upturn the system. And they do! They get rid of the noblemen and stop paying taxes to them. Through some miracle, no noblemen rise to take their place, and the peasants are free of their torment and oppression. And what do the peasants do the next day?
They go back to work. They spend most of their time tilling the soil, planting seeds, caring for crops, and so on. The peasants have to work because there is no other way to get enough food for them all to eat. Somebody has to do that work to grow the crops, and so each peasant is still required to live a life full of manual labor, not much different than before. They may have stopped the taxes and injustice, but they still need to work.
What's more, their lives are no closer to the lives of relative luxury we live today. In modern times, most of us are not required to work the fields, and very few of us are needed to make enough food to survive. The peasants have not made any progress towards lives like ours, because they haven't fixed the fact that causes their misery: everybody has to work in order to eat.
Now, let's shift focus to today. In modern times, we have modern peasants and modern kings. Modern peasants, otherwise known as normal people, work for a living. Each person works, perhaps from 9am to 5pm or slightly longer, in order to get the money in order to survive. We need to pay for food, we need to pay rent, we need to pay for health insurance, everything costs money. Our lives are much better than the peasants of before, but every one of us still needs to work.
We also have modern day kings, otherwise known as billionaires. They live lives of luxury and are able to afford everything they could ever want. They do not work for their money and do not contribute. They profit off of the labor of the rest of us and use that money to enjoy themselves. What's more, they also use their power and influence to enforce the status quo, raise prices, and giving themselves tax benefits.
This system is also incredibly unfair. Take Jeff Bezos as an example, who has reportedly around 177 billion dollars, which, to put it mildly, is an obscene amount of money. Jeff Bezos could spend and spend and spend and spend and wouldn't come even close to running out. There is no conceivable world where Jeff Bezos *needs* this much money, and its highly debatable that he deserves it.
However, let's take a closer look. Let's say through some miracle we manage to take away all of Jeff Bezos' money. Ignoring the fact that most of it is not cash, or that it would be very hard to convert and split up, or that Mr Jeff Bezos would likely make it very, very hard to find all of it, let's say we could simply do it. If we took all that money and split it up amongst every man, woman, and child in the US, everybody would get around $536. Don't misunderstand, that isn't nothing, and perhaps people's lives would be slightly better off with that money, but it isn't life changing. It's not going to fix most people's problems.
“Now wait,” you might say, “That's only Jeff Bezos. What if we took away all the billionaires wealth?”. According to the Forbes 400, the richest 400 Americans, which has a cutoff of around $2.1 billion, have a combined wealth of around $4,500 billion. Ignoring the fact that a lot of that money came from outside the US, if we split up that money among all the 330 million Americans then everybody would get $13,636.
Now that is a number worth considering. That amount of money could certainly help people a lot, and perhaps it is worth the effort to go out and get it from all the billionaires. However, I would like to pose a serious question: if you got that amount of money, once in your life, would the course of your life be considerably different? Recently, many Americans got a single $10,000 student loan forgiveness. Was that enough? Would the money cover the enormous costs of healthcare, student loans, rent, and inflation all combined? Would that $13,636 be enough to permanently fix your life, or would you still have to go back into work tomorrow?
To be clear, these questions aren't meant to discourage taxing the rich. I genuinely think its a good idea, and the rich can certainly afford it. But it's important to put into perspective that the problems we face as a society aren't going to be solved by just taxing billionaires. Taxing billionaires isn't going to be enough to pay for all the healthcare and education and housing that we want.
What we need, more than taxing billionaires, is to fix the root causes of these problems. We need to build more housing, fix cost/profit overruns in healthcare, and bring the cost of college down. We need to invent new technology and regulate monopolies and improve our public education system. We need to truly examine why our system is broken and try to fix the system, not spend 10 years trying to get rid of the billionaires.
These are difficult problems, problems I don't have the answer to. These problems don't make for great talking points or funny memes or passionate discussion. Perhaps working within the system is needed, perhaps tearing down the system and building a new one is needed. I'm not sure. What I am sure of is that the solution to our problems will be found in building better systems rather than chasing scapegoats.