Even the “Good” Billionaires Are Bad

Liberals and right-wingers have the same love-hate relationship with billionaires: both love the ones on their side of the partisan divide and hate those on the opposite side.

Bill Gates speaks during the Global Investment Summit at the Science Museum on October 19, 2021 in London, England. (Leon Neal / WPA Pool / Getty Images)

The Left, it would seem, actually loves billionaires. Or so appears to be the allegation from “Cool Kids’ Philosopher” Ben Shapiro who on Friday said the following without further context or exposition: “Having fun with ‘billionaires like Elon Musk cannot have this much power over our lives except for Bill Gates, George Soros, Jeff Bezos.’” Reading between the lines, Shapiro’s statement looks to be a reaction to the backlash that’s ensued in some quarters following billionaire Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter.

As a standalone statement it’s not exactly coherent. For one thing, it’s unclear who is actually supposed to hold the opinion Shapiro is ventriloquizing. Interpolating a little bit more, he would probably say “the Left” — referring, as many conservatives are wont to do, to an extremely broad and nebulous spectrum spanning just about everyone from Chuck Schumer to Twitter accounts with hammer and sickle emojis in their bios. Assuming that’s a fair characterization, it’s quite obviously a straw man. Scroll through the archives of Jacobin or the Nation and you’ll find plenty of criticism aimed both at Musk and many of the more Democrat or liberal-friendly billionaires “the Left” supposedly loves.

Still (albeit in a dumb way) there is something to Shapiro’s claim vis-à-vis the way certain liberals are liable to think about billionaires and the superrich. If you’re primarily concerned with the level of political uprightness, or perhaps lack of it, espoused by individual wealthy people it’s easy to see how someone could hate Musk but make approving noises about Bill Gates. While he’s not busy union busting or buying up chunks of the public square on a whim, the former now spends his days performing a derivative trigger-the-libs schtick and echoing right-wing culture war talking points. Gates, on the other hand, has spent years carefully cultivating his brand as a liberally inclined social do-gooder: a man who gives generously to charity, pursues ambitious global health initiatives, and even demands that his own taxes be hiked (thanks, among other things, to a very public divorce, this image took a hit in 2020 but, by and large Gates’s brand has seemed to emerge fairly intact).

Scratch the surface of either billionaire’s mainstream reputation and you’ll immediately find plenty of bullshit buried underneath the PR sheen. Musk, who likes to play the role of promethean inventor, has become grotesquely wealthy (and seen his wealth spike) through totally boring and garden-variety capitalist means — notwithstanding his periodic speculation about the impending colonization of other planets. Gates, meanwhile, was perfectly happy to pal around with Jeffrey Epstein and has deployed his wealth to influence the media, to say nothing of his pernicious advocacy around vaccine patents throughout the pandemic and countless other things.

Still, if you’re on the Left, the problem here isn’t about what X or Y billionaire says or does. Billionaires spend their money and exercise power in different ways, some of which are more or less destructive or benign. Some are cultural liberals happy to speak in support of Black Lives Matter while others are extremely online edgelords à la Elon Musk or dystopian libertarian supervillains in the mold of Peter Thiel. These archetypes may reflect real differences, but they’re entirely secondary if you view the problem as being about the existence of concentrated wealth and power as such. The Left’s political vision, needless to say, does not amount to a society in which hierarchy simply has a more benevolent face. It instead seeks one without the hierarchies endemic to our current consensus in which political democracy is deepened and democratic principles are extended into economic life.

The irony in all this, given his grandstanding, is that Ben Shapiro approves of billionaires as long as they’re sufficiently conservative, much as some liberals love those who support Democratic politicians, donate to liberal causes, or mount efforts to seem socially conscientious. On the fundamental question of who should ultimately hold wealth and power in our society, Shapiro — and other figures on the Right like him — is really not all that different from the elite liberals he so piously likes to criticize.