Are libertarians often disgusted by ostentatious displays of wealth? by mattsteinglass
June 4, 2008, 2:18 am
Filed under: Economics | Tags:

Megan McArdle, who was quite charming when I met her some months ago while she was visiting Vietnam, has one of the oddest posts I’ve ever seen a libertarian poster post today.

Of course I know intellectually that the New York Times Style section exists solely in order to fill libertarians with existential disgust about the shallow, grasping lives that the free market enables its more successful denizens to lead.

Megan then goes on to explain that while Bill Gates clearly doesn’t have too much money for his own good, presumably because he knows how to put it to interesting and morally worthy uses, some other multi-billionaires clearly do have too much money for their own good, and it leads them into venal soul-corrupting solipsism and vulgar displays of obscene lucre — live reanimated dinosaurs at their sons’ bar mitzvahs and that sort of thing. Finally, she suggests, obviously in jest, a “Megan tax” which would kick in whenever someone pays $20,000 for a designer handbag.

I don’t really know what to say to this.  I completely agree with her aesthetic and ethical response to people who say they’re selling the diamonds they never wear because they’re afraid if they don’t spend conspicuously people will think they’re poor and their children won’t get invited to the right birthday parties. My “tongue in cheek” suggestion for such people would probably involve sackcloth, self-flagellation and a vow of silence, rather than a mere tax. But I can’t at all figure out where this fits in Megan’s worldview, except that it must fit in that part of her worldview which I think makes her a sympathetic person, somewhere next to the veganism. Still, it seems to me that if this kind of thing worries you, and I absolutely think it should, then you should really support a very progressive tax rate, up to something like 70% on the top end of the income curve. Nothing Bill Gates is doing with his money is particularly better than what NIH would do with it, and for every Bill Gates there are, well, a hundred mini-Bill-Gateses (who all add up to maybe one more Bill Gates if you stack them on top of each other) who aren’t doing anything decent with their money at all.

3 Comments so far
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Something like 70% on the top end (whatever top end means) is nonsense. It is this sort of thing that motivates a lot of people to get the hell out of the west and into places like Asia. I hope the hypocrisy of westerners decrying the gaps between rich and poor and living in Asia so that they can take advantage their wealth gap vis-à-vis the locals isn’t lost on you.

Whenever the US has had this sort of tax rate, it was always riddled with loopholes so that liberals could simultaneously claim to be “soaking the rich” on the one hand while currying favor with fat cat political donors on the other.

Furthermore, when you speak about “venal soul-corrupting solipsism and vulgar displays of obscene lucre”, that must include Ronald Burkle ( or is he excluded because he gives millions to people who support what you have written above?


Comment by Frank

I don’t actually think a 70% top marginal rate is a good idea, for the reasons you outline above. 50% seems more logical to me. But if you’re concentrating purely on the problem of disgusting self-congratulatory displays of wealth, then you’d want it to be higher than that. I know nothing about Ron Burkle except that he gives a lot of money to the Clinton Foundation, but am happy to deplore any examples of revolting money-wallowing on his part which you come up with.

Comment by mattsteinglass

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