I recall once a few years ago, someone told me that the professional basketball player Michael Jordan had more money than several African nations. I have no idea whether that’s true or not (though that’s somewhat immaterial to the discussion at hand); what I do remember is that my immediate reaction was one of disgust; how could someone be making billions of dollars* for playing a sport while millions of people were starving to death around the world. I also recall that my friend who was with me at the time had a rather different reaction “cool!”
And in fairness to him, Mr. Jordan was a very good basketball player. He is a man who parlayed his skills into a ‘service’ (if it can be called that) for which there was significant market demand; indeed, it would not be unfair to say, from a strictly economic standpoint, that he earned every penny of it. But it is also true that the market isn’t exactly a level playing field; it’s doubtful (though I would say not impossible) that a person born in Senegal would ever make that much money, no matter how good of a basketball player he was. Moreover, even though he made the money by playing according to the rules of market capitalism, is it really fair to say that it’s ethical for him to be making thousands of times more money than, for example, medical researchers who perform a much more necessary though far less glamourous service?
I’m obviously not going to answer these questions here, since that’s what a broad swath of political and economic theory is for. What I will say though, is that in principle the whole matter seems like it could be** a decent rule-of-thumb for placing people’s relative position on the political spectrum. Namely, when you hear about someone who is fantastically wealthy, such Michael Jordan or the 16th-century Doge of Venice, is your first reaction generally “I wish I had that much money,” or is it “that’s more money than anyone person should ever have?”
I think that the way that one answers may be illuminating.
*In fact, Mr. Jordan’s net worth is estimated at four hundred million, though I’m not sure how this was calculated.
**I’ve never actually tried it, mind you