How Much Should the Wealthy Give Back?


How much should the wealthy give back to society? When I asked that question in an ethics class recently, one student thought that they didn’t owe anything to society. The wealthy should keep what they have since they earned it. It is theirs and theirs alone.

“All men and women need a roof over their heads, and need to be fed and have health care.” This person quoted in the NY Times, who sympathizes with Occupy Wall Street, disagrees with Warren Buffett, Bill Gates and other super-wealthy, who call on their brethren to give away half their wealth.

“I suggested 80 percent. A tremendous number of people haven’t given much of anything.” The political system is broken, he says. Ethics are nowhere to be seen.

The wealthy, he insists, have an obligation to share what they have. And he has lived up to his call.  Jon M. Huntsman, Sr., has given away more than $1 billion.

Huntsman, whose son is one of the also-rans in the Republican presidential primary race, believes that many of the world’s problems could be solved by more generous donations. And he may be right—if only the donations were forthcoming. But the reality is that of the world’s 1,200 billionaires, only 19 have given away more than a billion dollars.

The reality is that social and economic needs can’t be met by voluntary contributions. While some are generous beyond imagination, others feel entitled to what they have and don’t want to give away it away, at least not in amounts that mean much.

This is why Islam, for example, has two forms of giving, one voluntary and the other compulsory. It is good to be personally responsible for the well-being of the less fortunate but society can’t rely upon goodwill alone.

Charity is good but often does more good for the soul of the donor than it does for the sustained good of the recipient. Taxation, however, insures a steady stream of support to those in need.

The issue isn’t whether the wealthy have an obligation to support the less fortunate but how much of an obligation is it and how should the obligation should be carried out.

Huntsman is right: 80% of the wealth should be redistributed, a figure that is lower than the tax bracket for the wealthiest during the Eisenhower administration.

He is wrong, though, in thinking that relying upon the conscience of the wealthy will work. As he said, ethics is nowhere to be seen.

Taxes are a good way to get people, all people, to do the right thing despite themselves. Of course, the money then needs to be spent properly, but that’s another matter.

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