U.S. Markets close in 4 hrs 28 mins

Mark Zuckerberg's plea for the billionaire class is deeply anti-democratic

Kate Aronoff
Photograph: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images

Hitting back against presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’s assertion that billionaires should not exist – and his calls to tax their wealth at much higher rates – Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, worth $70bn, took to Fox News to defend his beleaguered class. Billionaires, he argued, should not exist in a “cosmic sense,” but in reality most of them are simply “people who do really good things and kind of help a lot of other people. And you get well compensated for that.” He warned too about the dangers of ceding too much control over their wealth to the government, allegedly bound to stifle innovation and competition and “deprive the market” of his fellow billionaires’ funding for philanthropy and scientific research.

“Some people think that, okay, well the issue or the way to deal with this sort of accumulation of wealth is, ‘Let’s just have the government take it all,” Zuckerberg said. “And now the government can basically decide, you know, all of the medical research that gets done.” What he didn’t mention is that Sanders’s tax would cost him $5.5bn in its first year.

Zuckerberg’s reasoning isn’t unique among the 1%, especially in Silicon Valley: people with outrageous wealth have earned it through their own cunning, creating a vital service for the world that furthers the common good. Their success, this myth tells us, is a testament to their ability to divine what’s best for society and bring it into existence; their fortunes are commensurate to their genius. Philanthropy, as such, isn’t just an alternative to taxing them more but far preferable. After all, what could some collection of nameless, faceless bureaucrats know better than a man – and they’re usually men – who has built such vast wealth? Vital innovation, Zuckerberg threatens, will only happen if you’re nice enough to him and his rich friends.

As common as this argument is, it also happens not to be true. Take the basis of Mark Zuckerberg’s fortune. The internet was developed out of a small Pentagon network intended to allow the military to exchange information during the Cold War. In her book The Entrepreneurial State, economist Mariana Mazzucato shows that iPhones – the ones that Facebook skims prolific amounts of data off of to sell to the highest bidder – are in large part a collection of technologies created by various state agencies, cobbled together by Apple into the same sleek case.

Instead of leading the way to improve health outcomes, the quest for profits in medicine has led drug companies to produce products just different enough from those of their competitors to patent, effectively allowing these firms collect rent from the sick. And of the top 88 innovations rated by R&D Magazine as the most important between 1971 and 2006, economists Fred Block and Matthew Keller have found that 77 were the beneficiaries of substantial federal research funding, particularly in early stage development. “If one is looking for a golden age in which the private sector did most of the innovating on its own without federal help,” they write, “one has to go back to the era before World War II.” Along the same timeline that the right has dragged the reputation of the public sector, it has only become more central to progress the private sector has taken credit for.

Let’s also not forget about the myriad boondoggles pumped out of Silicon Valley in the last decade, from Theranos to the Fyre Festival to Juicero. The recent implosion of the real estate company WeWork – backed heartily by SoftBank and JP Morgan Chase, and losing one dollar for every dollar it makes – should cast some doubt on the supposed genius of the private sector to overcome society’s most pressing challenges, or even to pick winners. Besides government funding, too, most wunderkind tech companies are propped up by armies of typically underpaid workers, whether they’re driving Ubers, mining the rare earth minerals needed for smartphones under brutal working conditions or watching hour after hour of grisly videos to moderate them out of our Facebook timelines.

This isn’t all to say that the private sector hasn’t played a significant role in driving innovation; someone needed to design the iPhone, after all. But the the fortunes built off of each couldn’t exist were it not for the government more often than not taking the first step, funding innovation far riskier than venture capitalists and angel investors can usually stomach. “Not only has government funded the riskiest research,” Mazzucato writes, “but it has indeed often been the source of the most radical, path-breaking types of innovation.” The Mark Zuckerbergs of the world, in other words, can make good things happen. But they hardly ever do it alone.

Moreover, billionaires’ extravagant wealth is by and large not spent, as Zuckerberg suggests, on cutting edge research and philanthropic efforts. After they’ve bought up enough yachts and private jets they mainly invest in making themselves richer through casino-style financial speculation and in luxury real estate in starkly unequal cities like San Francisco, Miami and New York, where mostly vacant homes act as safety deposit boxes to shield wealth from taxation. Their money might also end up in tax havens like the Cayman Islands, where it can sit undisturbed by the long arm of the state. Very little of that ever trickles down to the 99%, where inequality has skyrocketed and wages have stagnated.

Zuckerberg’s plea for the billionaire class is above all else deeply anti-democratic, casting doubt on the huddled masses’ ability to decide what’s best for themselves while repeating myths that the public sector is doomed to be wasteful and stagnant. While they could play some role in funding the genuinely cutting edge research coming out of places like ARPA-E and the National Institutes of Health, perhaps the best argument for the kinds of policies Sanders has proposed would be to make it clear that billionaires can’t transcend democracy and call all the shots about what society needs and what it doesn’t. In a truly democratic world – where labor is valued fairly – they wouldn’t exist at all.

  • Kate Aronoff is a freelance journalist based in New York City