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The Billionaire Problem

Writing in the 1830s, as the Industrial Revolution gathered pace, Honoré de Balzac anticipated the broader social concern: “The secret of great fortunes without apparent cause is a crime that has been forgotten, because it was properly carried out.” But today's billionaires make forgetting impossible.

WASHINGTON, DC – Our billionaire problem is getting worse. Any market-oriented economy creates opportunities for new fortunes to be built, including through innovation. More innovation is likely to take place where fewer rules encumber entrepreneurial creativity. Some of this creativity may lead to processes and products that are actually detrimental to public welfare. Unfortunately, by the time the need for legislation or regulation becomes apparent, the innovators have their billions – and they can use that money to protect their interests.

This billionaire problem is not new. Every epoch, dating at least from Roman times, produces versions of it whenever some shift in market structure or geopolitics creates an opportunity for fortunes to be built quickly. Writing in the 1830s, as the Industrial Revolution gathered pace, Honoré de Balzac anticipated the broader social concern: “The secret of great fortunes without apparent cause is a crime that has been forgotten, because it was properly carried out.” Or, in the more popular paraphrase: behind every great fortune lies a great crime.

Prominent historical examples include the British East India Company, the Europeans who built vast fortunes based on African slave labor in the West Indies, and coal mine owners. All became rich fast, and then used their political clout to get what they wanted, including impunity for horrendous abuses. At their peak in the nineteenth century, railway interests held sway over many or perhaps even most members of the British parliament.

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