Eat the rich! Bring out the guillotine! Off with their heads!
Throughout human history we’ve had a big problem with the rich. Once someone gets a whiff of a big bank account they can get a bit greedy, a bit exploitative, a bit power hungry. But does money make people bad? Take for example Jeff Bezos, whose company famously exploits its workers. Can people that have accrued that much wealth be…good?
It’s a loaded query with no simple answer. What does “good” mean? What does “bad” mean? Can people be both? Can only rich people be assholes? Of course not. But as the gap between the rich and the less fortunate continues to grow, as wages plateau, as rent prices soar and the cost of living goes up, the little guy seeing a billionaire launch themselves into space “just because they can” can be a bit…uh, questionable.
When we posed the question on Instagram 44 percent said a hard “yes”. For the other 32 percent it was a hard “no”. And the last 24 percent were undecided: “You can be wealthy and a good person but not billionaire level” said one. “After a certain level of wealth, it becomes hard to justify, given the gross inequity of the world” said another. “Yes, but it’s all in the context of how you got that money” said a third.
When it came to what actually makes a person “wealthy”, answers were slightly more vague.
Most seem to think about millionaires or billionaires when we think of the rich; others believe the luxury of not living paycheck to paycheck is enough. Some say that simply earning above the median wage of the area in which you lived would count as wealth for them, while others dodged the monetary aspect of the question entirely, pointing towards a loving support system.
To get to the bottom of it, we spoke to some of our readers. This is what they said.
VICE: Do you think you can be rich and be a good person?
Hugo: I think it’s a matter of how you obtain the money. It’s theoretical versus realistic. I think theoretically yes you can but realistically a lot of good people aren’t people who are rich.
VICE: How do you define someone who is wealthy?
Hugo: A half a million dollar profit post expenses each year. Hard to properly ballpark.
VICE: What makes a good person in your eyes?
Hugo: How do I put this: The problem with this question is that everyone loves the narrative that they’re all good people, so in my eyes being a good person is entirely based on the idea of actively avoiding hurting other people and at the same time helping those around you but the problem with that is people can say they’re doing that in one regard but then completely ignoring the fact that they’re hurting someone differently.
VICE: So being good is completely subjective.
VICE: Before you were saying it depends how a person gets rich, what did you mean by that?
Hugo: Say if you had a service like if I were a mechanic, right? And everyone wanted to come to me and I just had a lot of orders coming through and I was doing a good job on everyone’s car and a lot of money coming through, and you’re able to get rich off that. In that regard I wouldn’t consider you a bad person. But if you were someone – and it’s what we see with a lot of people – that takes shortcuts or steps and minimises wages or removing benefits for people to get rich or destroying the climate to get rich. In that regard you’re not a good person.
VICE: Who’s a rich person that you think is a good person?
Hugo: Good person, that’s the harder part. My immediate thoughts were Bill and Melinda Gates who did a lot of work with HIV in Africa, but also at the same time they did questionable things with an investment firm Black Rock which does questionable things with what they invest in.
VICE: And bad?
Hugo: It’s actually extremely easy to name someone who’s bad. I could go for Jeff Bezos, I could go for Elon Musk, it’s not particularly hard.
VICE: So do you think you can be rich and a good person?
Natasha: Yes, definitely.
VICE: And why is that?
Natasha: Well, I come from an organised crime family. So I've been brought up around a lot of money. I've always maintained that I would never be looking down on anyone else. Because as you know, on your way up, you're always going to come back down. That's the way I look at it. So I've always treated everybody as an equal.
VICE: So you would describe your family as quite wealthy?
Natasha: Yes, I would.
VICE: And good people?
Natasha: Yes, to a degree. Some of the family’s good, some not so good.
VICE: But you don't think that's a symptom of being rich, it's something else?
Natasha: I think it's a symptom of the way we were brought up. And I think it's not so much to do with money. It's to do with a generational thing. We didn't always come from money. And so there was a lot of hard working people in our family.
I think that can be a problem where you see people that are born into money. We made our own money. Therefore, we know what it's like not to have money.
VICE: What do you define as someone who is wealthy?
Natasha: So I asked my family. And we, as a collective think if you have a roof over your head, money in the bank, not living week to week and above all, a close knit family then you are wealthy.
VICE: What do you think about billionaires like Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk?
Natasha: I think they're hard workers. This is a hard one. I think those sorts of guys have worked themselves up to be what they are. Not so much the Rothschilds and those people of the world where they're born into it, they expect it, they think that they can do whatever they want with it.
I don't want my children to be like that. I don't want them to think that they can always get a handout. I don't want them to think that people can get paid off so they can do what they want.
VICE: Do you mind if I ask what kind of crime your family was involved in?
Natasha: I would rather not say that. It’s still ongoing.
VICE: Yeah, that’s fair.
VICE: Do you think you can be rich and a good person?
Mikaela: I think you can be, yeah.
VICE: When I was talking to you before you were saying your parents are wealthy?
Mikaela: I mean they’re comfortable. They’re not rich rich.
VICE: What’s rich rich?
Mikaela: I’m not sure. There’s just so much money in the world right now, it’s hard for me to wrap my head around. A million is so much to me but people have billions and that just wigs me out. How do people have billions of dollars?
VICE: Who are some uber wealthy people you think are assholes?
Mikaela: I don’t know names but I know companies like Arnotts. Big companies are pretty bad, just getting money out of people.
VICE: What about Elon Musk, is he a good person?
Mikaela: It’s hard to say, he does some weird shit.
VICE: How do you think people get rich?
Mikaela: With good ideas, filling niches. Probably by scamming people and ripping people off.
VICE: So how’d your parents become wealthy or “comfortable”?
Mikaela: They started a training apprentice business.
VICE: And obviously you consider them good people?
Mikaela: I think they are.
VICE: And what makes them good?
Mikaela: They’re just very humble, and they don’t feed into bullshit or anger, and they try and see the good in people and always look on the bright side. They’re just really nice to their workers. It’s fair and everyone’s happy there.
VICE: What’s a good way to gauge whether someone’s rich and a bad person?
Mikaela: I think if they do things for greedy reasons. So I think you’re a bad person if you’re greedy or selfish or not caring.
VICE: So what do you think of rich people being good?
Chris: I mean it’s a bit of a vague and loaded question. So I can only give a vague and loaded answer to that. I would say no, with the caveat of: I don’t think the system that we live in incentivises people to be good. To be rich and good, I guess.
VICE: And what would you classify as good?
Chris: I mean, that’s another loaded question. I think that good is probably a spectrum but I think good is being engaged and invested in your community. Looking out for people and moving closer, and closer to more socially progressive systems of living. I dunno, very vague.
VICE: What do you think is a good way to gauge whether a rich person is an asshole?
Chris: Well I mean good and bad can sometimes be intent. Someone can be willfully good but still do bad things because they’re ignorant of it. Again, it comes back to the system that we’re in, it obscures a lot of morality. Capitalism divorces us from engaging with the morality of our actions. So I think rich people, even when they try and be good, it’s not gonna come off as good because of the system that they’re in.
VICE: And what do you consider rich?
Chris: Well I think there’s probably a threshold. I think earning over the median income of Australia, that could be part of it. Someone who earns more than the medium income for their area. Personally I think most of us could live comfortably in Sydney on about $150k which is a lot of money but it also depends on the suburb but beyond that I think it’s excessive and that money should be redistributed.
VICE: Do you personally know anyone you would consider rich?
Chris: Yes and I don’t think that they’re willfully bad people. I just think they’re ignorant to their place in the world.
VICE: What about a renowned rich person that is a good person?
Chris: Well, I don’t think I could name a good one. Hm. There might be celebrities I like. Like I like to think that Keanu Reeves is a good dude but I don’t know him. I don’t know where his money’s going. I think the richer you get the more skeletons in your closet, so no good ones. If I could pick a celebrity that I think is terrible that’s rich I think most people would say someone like Elon Musk. He has a lot of fans that are obsessed with him and I think that is common for people in the working class to idolise rich people like “Oh look, they did it.” But I think that Elon Musk is a real piece of shit. You can write that down, I don’t care. I don’t think we should be idolising the richest person in the world, I think we should be throwing them in jail.
VICE: So do you think you can be rich and a good person?
Aleks: Simply put—yes. However, there are very few ways that you can go about being rich and also being a good person. The most simple way to be rich and good is by having a clear plan about how you're going to redistribute your wealth. Fortunately, today there are many philosophical schools of thought which provide people with a framework for being rich and good. For example, there's this movement called Effective Altruism. It’s a theory that encourages high-income earners to pledge the majority of their income to charities that are extremely specific and effective in their work. An ‘effective’ charity may, for example, focus on treating malaria with malaria nets—charities like this have a tangible way of measuring outcomes.
Things get a bit confusing when you begin to define what's ‘valuable’ for people. Some people might value a $1000 pair of shoes over donating $1,000 to charity. In fact, I suspect that for most people their reflex is going to be to spend money rather than to donate it. If your definition of what is valuable revolves around material things, you're not going to be giving your money away. And, unfortunately, this is precisely what our society encourages—accumulating material and wealth. I think it's difficult to call ‘materialistic’ people bad because all they're doing is embodying the forces that are acting upon them; these forces are kind of being channelled out in every direction by capitalism. So rather than the individual being the problem, it's capitalism (baby).
VICE: What’s your personal opinion of what makes someone bad when they have money?
Aleks: Being a bad capitalist is essentially being a bad person, but with money. Very simply, I think a bad person is someone who neglects the most fundamental human value: freedom. A bad capitalist is someone who has all the luxuries of life: they're financially secure, they have a car, they can go on holidays, they can pay for anything they want—they are very free. However, they are a bad person because they don’t share their freedom with others. This is what a bad capitalist looks like—someone with self-propelling and self-enhancing ambitions who does not share resources with those who are less fortunate.
VICE: Do you have an example of someone that's an effective altruist?
Aleks: There are many famous examples of people who are effective altruists. Everyone's gonna slam me for bringing up this particular example: one of Australia's most influential philosophers, Peter Singer, was a pioneer of the Effective Altruism movement. He works at Princeton as a professor of philosophy on a neat salary. Peter lives modestly, and he gives the majority of his income to charity.
VICE: Who's an example you'd give for a bad capitalist?
Aleks: There’s this guy. His name is Martin Shkreli. And he's like… the worst. So he became very wealthy, and then he bought the licensing rights to a medicine called Daraprim that was used to prevent parasitic diseases (and pneumonia in people with HIV/AIDS). And then he jacked up the prices, from like $13.50 a pill to like $750 a pill. This is what you can do in a very advanced form of capitalism, when the responsibility is left to the individual to decide what is right and wrong, and when the government isn't regulating society’s most fundamental institutions (e.g. health care). I think the case of Martin Shkreli is one of the most nefarious and wicked examples of what you can do under capitalism when you're simply following the rules.
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