Every billionaire is a factory for producing policy failures

On the “attack philanthropy” of Barre Seid.

Cory Doctorow


Louis Brandeis once said, “we can have democracy in this country or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of the few, but we can’t have both.” It’s part of a long American tradition that abhors the gathering of power into just a few hands.

But there’s a countertradition in American politics: the belief in the unchecked power of plutocrats and robber-barons, who amass great fortunes, convert them into political power, and use that power to unaccountably structure the lives of millions of working people. Some Americans call this “liberty.”

The tension between aristocratic aspirations and democratic limits has been part of America since the earliest days. Thomas Jefferson (unsuccessfully) lobbied for an antimonopoly clause in the Constitution in order to check the power of the wealthy — only to be defeated by the wealthy landowners who saw American independence as a means to transition from one set of hereditary rulers to another.

The fight to prevent the rise of a new aristocracy has never ended in America. In 1890, Senator John Sherman addressed the Senate to argue for his landmark antitrust bill, saying, “If we will not endure a King as a political power we should not endure a King over the production, transportation, and sale of the necessaries of life.”


But as Thomas Piketty showed in his magisterial “Capital in the 21st Century,” market economies inevitably produce oligarchies, unless there is a muscular state that can strip the wealthy of the power and influence they accumulate through rent extraction and exploitation:


Thus it is that the aristocrats-in-waiting are always with us, working tirelessly to create the society described by Frank Wilhoit: “There must be in-groups whom the law protects but does not bind, alongside out-groups whom the law binds but does not protect.”