The Jeffrey Epstein case is so bizarre and unsettling, it’s unsurprisingly become grist for all manner of conspiracy theories, ranging from the zany but believable to the horrifying but . . . still believable. But at the heart of it all is one basic, almost banal truth: billionaires really shouldn’t exist.
It’s still not entirely clear where exactly Epstein’s bottomless well of cash came from, though it’s quite clear by now that it’s definitely not from what he claimed was his day job. Whatever the truth — whether he was blackmailing the rich and powerful, serving as their high-end black-market pimp, or something spookier — Epstein’s extreme wealth is inseparable from his crimes.
Epstein preyed on young girls whose families were struggling with money, came from foster homes, or were on the brink of homelessness. He dangled wads of money and the prospect of career advancement to lure them in, then plied them with lavish gifts to keep them there. The opulence he lived in rendered his crimes invisible, barely even hiding — flaunting, in fact — what he was doing on his private island, far from prying eyes on the mainland.
The best lawyers money could buy won him the famous “sweetheart deal” that made sure his prison sentence would be at worst a mild inconvenience. While restrictions on non-billionaire sex offenders can be so stringent they end up living permanently under a bridge, Epstein used his wealth to simply skirt them: he changed his official residence to the Virgin Islands, thus avoiding having to regularly check in with New York authorities, and spent more time in New Mexico, where he exploited a loophole to stay off the state’s sex offender registry.
And while Epstein’s laughably lenient treatment was due to the elite connections he’d accrued over the years, these were themselves products of his extreme wealth, with Epstein using money to ingratiate himself with some of the world’s most important people. These reinforced each other in an endless loop, with Epstein’s wealth originating in the first place from the finance connections he’d mysteriously made during his time as a math teacher.
In other words, the monstrous, sprawling crimes Epstein is accused of couldn’t have been possible without the extreme wealth inequality that prevails in our current world. And while this fact won’t blow anybody’s mind, it gains extra urgency when you consider some of the other stuff Epstein was planning to do.
We now know that Epstein wanted to be a twenty-first-century Genghis Khan and flood the human gene pool with his DNA by artificially impregnating scores of women at his New Mexico ranch. He also wanted his head and penis frozen for some as-yet-undisclosed purpose. This is all horrifying enough. But consider also a more mundane but equally horrifying detail about Epstein’s beliefs that has gotten less attention: that Epstein opposed efforts to provide the poor with health care and relief from starvation, because he believed doing so would lead to overpopulation.
Epstein’s racist, eugenicist beliefs — that the human race can be genetically improved and that overpopulation among the global poor, not the resource consumption of the global rich, is the real threat to the planet — are not unique. They’re shared by garden-variety racists and a range of ill-informed people. But unlike those groups, Epstein, with his wealth, power, and connections, could actually act on them.
Perhaps Epstein really is one of a kind when it comes to the outlandish lengths he went to in order to actualize his beliefs. The trouble is, we have no way of knowing. The super-rich are generally intensely private, and the only reason we’re now finding out about Epstein’s deepest, darkest ambitions is that an unlikely confluence of factors has finally brought him the scrutiny he’s avoided his entire life. It seems more absurd to believe that Epstein stands alone among the global elite than to assume he’s just one of a number of ultra-wealthy weirdos hatching plans we’ll never hear about. This is especially true given that we already know about his fellow billionaire Peter Thiel’s interest in reversing the aging process by transfusing the blood of the young, or the fact that global overpopulation is a long-standing pet obsession of many billionaires.
One of the problems with wealth inequality is its tendency to magnify. A lot of people, probably even your neighbors and family members, have wacky, eccentric ideas for how the world should work; they just don’t have untold millions and billions of dollars to put them into motion.
Compound that with the corrosive effects of extreme wealth on the human brain. Both anecdotal evidence and many, many studies show that having wealth and power increases a person’s sense of entitlement — their feeling that they’re not bound by the rules of wider society — while reducing their ability to empathize, exercise moral judgment, and be generous. As one wealth manager told sociologist Brooke Harrington, author of Capital Without Borders: Wealth Managers and the One Percent, “National borders are nothing to them. They might as well not exist. The laws are nothing to them. They might as well not exist. It’s potentially very, very dangerous.”
In other words, it’s a perfect recipe for creating a small army of Epsteins.
But it’s also a mistake to focus too much on the most salacious aspects of the Epstein story. While there are no doubt other super-rich creeps like Epstein lurking in the open, his case is just a particularly grotesque variant of the far more banal but dangerous ways the extremely wealthy discreetly shape our world for the worse: by spreading climate denial and white supremacy, for example, or by buying the electoral process and dictating public policy more generally. Even the most benevolent billionaires, like Warren Buffett or Bill Gates, do detriment to the world before pushing their pet causes onto the rest of us.
The super-rich buy citizenship and destroy news outlets they don’t like. They help install far-right politicians in power and block our efforts to stave off the climate crisis. They plot coups, bankroll movements to roll back the political progress of the twentieth century, and literally get away with murder. And yes, some of them even run what appears to be an international underage sex-trafficking ring.
This isn’t just something intrinsic to wealth. It’s the natural outcome of concentrated, unaccountable power wielded by a small collection of people largely removed from the lived experience of the vast majority of people on Earth, just as feudalist monarchies and totalitarian dictatorships produced their own classes of people who engaged in extreme cruelty and selfishness, and wielded power simply to perpetuate it. We know where the concentration of wealth and power ultimately leads; the question is whether we’re willing to do something about it.