These are good times for rich people. The stock market has Trump fever. Congress is full of millionaires. President Donald Trump is the richest president we’ve ever had. His Cabinet’s combined wealth is estimated at more than $10 billion. This is plutocracy.
Trump bragged that he wanted “people who made a fortune” in his Cabinet. And he got them. Their combined wealth is more than the combined wealth of the bottom one-third of American families.
As Trump told us in his address to Congress this week, there are 43 million Americans living in poverty. It’s great that Trump put poverty reduction on the agenda.
Cures for poverty include raising the minimum wage, boosting spending on public education, increasing aid for working mothers, helping to provide birth control and keeping health care affordable. Let’s hope the plutocrats take this seriously, along with their obligation to share their good fortune with the unfortunate.
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Some believe that wealth is immoral. Jesus warned that wealth corrupts. Remember the parable about the rich man, the camel and the eye of a needle?
Others think that plutocracy is flawed. Socrates once asked his students to imagine they were sailing on a ship. Do they want the richest person as captain or the best sailor? The point is that wealth is no guarantee of wisdom or virtue.
Rich are wiser?
But some people seem to think that the wealthy are smarter and more virtuous than the rest of us. Billionaires are good at making money. So let’s recruit them to work their magic on our behalf. A related idea holds that what’s good for the wealthy is good for the commonwealth. As the saying goes, what’s good for General Motors is good for America.
Others argue that the wealthy have a special right to govern. John Jay, the first chief justice of the United States, supposedly said, “Those who own the country ought to govern it.”
The wealthy do have a kind of autonomy and independence that can be an asset in governing. Wealthy people do not need to beg, borrow or steal. They can refuse special interests and lobbyists. Since the wealthy are rich already, maybe they won’t use their office for selfish purposes.
This way of thinking explains why Donald Trump and his supporters are not worried about conflicts of interest in the Trump administration that are giving ethicists heartburn. Trump suggests that as president he is absolved from those ethical concerns. The law does seem to allow an exception for the president.
But a group of legal experts, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, already sued the president for violating the Emoluments Clause of the U.S. Constitution. (The clause says no one holding office shall receive any gift or gain from another country or foreign representative unless Congress approves.) Trump also has lost several of his nominees because of concerns about conflicts of interest.
Apparent conflicts of interest abound. Betsy DeVos, our billionaire secretary of education, has millions invested in a company called Neurocore, which offers a nonmedical treatment for ADHD and a method for boosting brainpower. The president is using his for-profit club, Mar-a-Lago, as his “southern White House.” Presidential spokeswoman Kellyanne Conway used her bully pulpit to endorse Ivanka Trump’s products. And Melania Trump has sued the Daily Mail for libel, claiming that a false story about her damaged the profitability of her brand.
There is nothing wrong with making money. Nor is there anything inherently wrong with rich people ruling, so long as the common good is served and our basic rights are protected. Money is not the root of evil. But self-interest is.
Rich people can do good things. But greed has a corrupting influence. The habit of profiteering is a hard one to break. And the appearance of impropriety, avarice and self-dealing can have a corrosive effect on government.
The plutocrats say, “Trust us. We are so rich that we have nothing to gain from taking advantage of our power.” They tell us that they have our interests in mind. They could certainly afford to share some of their billions with working moms and homeless children. But as the saying goes, “Show me the money.”
The portfolios of the powerful have swelled. The plutocrats are prospering. But the poor remain penniless. That certainly seems unethical – and undemocratic.
Andrew Fiala is a professor of philosophy and director of The Ethics Center at Fresno State: @PhilosophyFiala