In recent times there have been several well-intentioned studies and reports which strongly advocate raising more resources by imposing much higher taxes on the super-rich and billionaires. An increasing support for this is provided by the sharply escalating inequality of COVID times in which billionaires have increased as never before and have been amassing wealth to an unprecedented extent, at the same time as more and more people have been experiencing poverty, unemployment and denial of basic needs. It is the apparent and glaring injustice of this  that motivates many well-justified demands to tax the billionaires more to raise  resources for providing relief to the poor and attending to other essential priorities.

So far so good. But what if this demand is accepted and implemented in such a way as to accomplish actually the stated objective of raising  higher resources for helping the weaker sections and for other desirable objectives? Won’t then this be used as a justification for continuing wider inequality increasing policies that result in a concentration of wealth and income in the hands of billionaires and the super-rich? Oh it is the billionaires who provide most of the increased resources for helping the poor and providing for other essential priorities in the form of taxes, so let them grow faster and faster so that more and more taxes can be obtained from them. Hence in an awkward twist, some persons and organisations who see and position themselves as champions of equality may find themselves in a role of promoting even deeper levels of inequality and an inherently unequal pattern of development just to get some shorter-term tax gains.

Please do not misunderstand me. I am not doubting the good intentions of those who advocate higher taxes on billionaires as the way forward for helping the poor and vulnerable sections. I am not opposing them. Once you are faced with a situation of higher, increasing inequalities characterized particularly by higher concentration of wealth and income at the top of the pyramid among the super-rich and billionaires, it seems to be the most obvious way of reducing inequalities to ask for much higher taxation of the wealth and income of the super-rich.

My only aim here is to caution that in the process the advocates of much greater equality should not get caught in a trap which ultimately leads to their rather hestitant support (or support born of confusion ) being extended to those policies which are inherently tied up with escalation of inequalities, with heavy concentration of wealth in the hands of billionaires and the super-rich. We should not forget the bigger picture or the wider reality that while it may be possible to get some higher tax from the super-rich temporarily, the bigger harm accruing from concentration of wealth and income in the hands of the super-rich and the accompanying greater influence on wider policies by them will result in much greater harm. In fact, some of the topmost among the super-rich may not at all be averse to such a trade-off—they won’t mind paying a somewhat higher share of their income and wealth as tax as long as this comes with much enhanced control over policy, rise in stature as well as acceptance of high dependence on them for mobilisation of resources. This sort of helps to legitimize and justify the unjustifiably high concentration of wealth and income in their hands.

A realization of this possibility of falling into the trap of willy-nilly justifying the deeper inequality enhancing processes can alert genuine advocates of social and economic equality to avoid placing all their eggs in the basket of taxing the billionaires. In particular they need to be much more aware and attentive regarding the wider possibilities of a path led by deeper levels of many-sided commitment to social and economic justice. The path of letting billionaires proliferate and then being content with just taxing a part of their income and wealth increase is surely a much less creative and credible path and yet this short-cut to quick nirvana appers to be getting most of the attention in recent times.

So let us tax billionaires more by all means, but let us not allow ourselves to be deluded that this is all, or most, of what exists on the equality agenda. Let our commitment advance to a much more enlightened, creative and multi-dimensional path of equality and justice.

Bharat Dogra is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include Planet in Peril, Man Over Machine and Protecting Earth for Children.

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