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Smash the Oligarchy

Non-profit activity lets super-elites broker political power tax-free, reshaping the world according to their designs.

Smash the oligarchy. 

America’s super-wealthy have too much power. A republican regime based on the consent of the governed cannot survive when a few hands control too large a sum of money and too much human capital. A dominion of monopolists spells ruin for the common man. 

The Federal Reserve calculates that, at present, America’s total household wealth equals $104 trillion. Of that, $3.4 trillion belongs to America’s 600 billionaires alone. Put another way, 3% of the nation’s wealth belongs to 0.0002% of the population. Those 600 names control twice as much wealth as the least wealthy 170 million Americans combined. This is a problem. Economic power means political power. In an era of mass media, it has never been easier to manufacture public opinion and to manipulate the citizenry.

Look no further than the consensus view of Fortune 500 companies as to the virtues of Black Lives Matter. That movement’s incredible cultural reach is, in large part, a function of its cachet among American elites. In 2016, the Ford Foundation began a Black-Led Movement Fund to funnel $100 million into racial and social justice causes. George Soros’ Open Society Foundation immediately poured in $33 million in grants. 

Soros and company received a massive return on investment. The shift leftward on issues of racial and social justice in the last four years has been nothing short of remarkable. Net public support for BLM, at minus 5 percent in 2018, has surged to plus 28 percent in 2020. The New York Times estimates that some 15 to 26 million Americans participated in recent protests over George Floyd’s death.

And the money keeps flowing. In the last three months, hundreds of millions of dollars have poured into social and racial justice causes. Sony Music Group, the NFL, Warner Music Group, and Comcast all have promised gifts in excess of $100 million. MacKenzie Bezos has promised more than a billion dollars to Historically Black Colleges and Universities as well as other racial and social justice organizations. Yet, as scholars like Heather MacDonald have pointed out—America’s justice system is not racist. Disquieting anecdotes and wrenching videos blasted across cyberspace are not the whole of, or even representative of, our reality. But well-heeled media and activism campaigns can change the perception. That’s what matters.

The American tax code makes all of this possible. It greases the skids for the wealthy to use their fortunes to augment their political power. The 501(c)(3) designation makes all donations, of whatever size, to charitable nonprofits immune from taxation.

A man can only eat so much filet mignon in one lifetime. He can only drive so many Lamborghinis and vacation in so many French chalets. At a certain point, the longing for material pleasures gives way to a longing for honor and power. What a super-elite really wants is to be remembered for “changing the world.” The tax code makes the purchasing of such honors even easier than buying fast cars and luxury homes. 

For the super-wealthy, political power comes tax-free.

No one ever elected Bill Gates to anything. His wealth, and not the democratic process, is the only reason he has an outsized voice in shaping coronavirus policy. The man who couldn’t keep viruses out of Windows now wants to vaccinate the planet. That isn’t an unreasonable goal for a man of his wealth, either. Gates’s foundation is the second largest donor to the World Health Organization, providing some 10 percent of its funds. That kind of influence over expert opinion is immense—and it yields results. In April, Gates called for a nationwide total lockdown for 10 weeks. America didn’t quite sink to that level of draconian control, but the shutdowns we did get absolutely crushed small businesses. Massive tech firms, however, made out like bandits. Microsoft stock is at an all-time high.

No one ever voted on those lockdowns, either. Like the mask-wearing mandates, they were instituted by executive fiat. The experts, many of them funded through donations given by tech billionaires like Gates, campaigned for policies that radically altered the basic structure of society. Here lies the danger of billionaire power. Without adequate checks and balances, the super-wealthy can skirt the normal political process, working behind the scenes to make policies that the people never even have a chance to debate or vote on. 

A republic cannot be governed this way. America needs to bring its current crop of oligarchs to heel. That starts with constraining their ability to commandeer their massive personal fortunes to shape policy. Technically, the 501(c)(3) designation prevents political activities by tax-exempt charities. Those rules apply only to political campaigning and lobbying, however. They say nothing about funding legal battles or shaping specific policies indirectly through research and grants. America’s universities, think tanks, and advocacy organizations are nearly universally considered tax-exempt nonprofits. Only a fool would believe they are not political.

One solution to the nonprofit problem is to simply get rid of the charitable exemption all together. If there is no loophole, it can’t be exploited by the mega-wealthy. Most Americans’ charitable giving wouldn’t be affected. The average American gives between $2,000 and $3,000 per year. That is well under the $24,800 standard tax deduction for married couples. Ninety percent of taxpayers have no reason to use a line-item deduction. Such a change likely wouldn’t affect wealthy givers either. In 2014, the average high-income American (defined as making more than $200,000 per year or having a million dollars in assets) gave an average of $68,000 to charity, and in 2018 93 percent said their giving had nothing to do with tax breaks.

Eliminating the tax exemption for charitable giving would make it simple to heavily tax the capital gains that drive the wealth of America’s richest one thousand people. One could also leave the exemption in place for most Americans (those with a net worth under $100 million), while making larger gifts, especially those over a billion dollars, taxable at extremely high rates close to 100%. Bill Gates wants to give a billion dollars to his foundation? Great. But he should pay a steep fee to the American people to purchase that kind of power.

There is nothing socialist in these or similar tax proposals. We are not making an abstract commentary on whether having a billion dollars is “moral.” These are simply prudential measures to put the people back in charge of their own country. Reining in billionaires and monopolists is a conservative free market strategy. 

Incentives to make more money are generally good. The libertarians are mostly right—people are usually better judges of how to spend and use their resources than the government. 

But not always. The libertarian account does not adequately recognize man’s political nature. We need law and order. We need a regime where elections matter and the opinions of the people actually shape policy. Contract law, borders, and taxes are all necessary to human flourishing, but all impede the total and unrestricted movement of labor and money. At the very top of the wealth pyramid, concentrated economic power always turns into political power. An economic policy that doesn’t recognize that fact will create an untouchable class that controls both the market and the regime. There’s nothing freeing about that outcome. 

An America governed by Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, and George Soros will be—arguably, already is—a disaster for the middle class and everyday Americans. Cracking down on their “selfless” philanthropy, combined with antitrust enforcement and higher progressive tax rates, is a key way for Americans to leverage the power of the ballot box against the power of the banker’s vault.

Josiah Lippincott is a former Marine officer and current Master’s student at the Van Andel School of Statesmanship at Hillsdale College. 

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