Limitarianism update

by Ingrid Robeyns on April 13, 2024

Since my book Limitarianism: The Case Against Extreme Wealth came out, first in Dutch at the end of November, and then in the US and in the UK a few weeks later, I’ve given more than 60 media interviews and talks. Among them was a long interview in The Observer, a summary of the argument in The Nation and an OpEd in the LA Times, and interviews for the Brian Lehrer Show, Sean Illing’s podcast The Grey Area at VOX, The Majority Report with Sam Seder, Stuff – Tova’s political podcast in New Zealand, and many more. Recently I started giving interviews to German and Austrian journalists (and the first one got published here), as the German translation will be out in less than 2 weeks from now.

Bruno Giussani, curator of TED Countdown, wrote about my book “It’s curious how a book that should have unleashed a furious debate since it was published two months ago has gone almost unnoticed.” Personally, I am not at all unhappy with the interest by the media. The Atlantic recently published a book review that captures very well ‘the spirit’ of the book – that is, as I think it should be read (and that is: not as a policy to be implemented tomorrow, although there is a set of less radical policies that we should fight for today). Still, Giussani’s comment does contain some truth, because most interviews and bookreviews have been published in progressive outlets. The non-progressive mainstream media prefer to ignore the book, except in the Netherlands and Flanders where almost all quality newspapers published long interviews with me, including the business newspapers. There are a few exceptions, such as a dismissive bookreview in The Economist, which was not particularly impressive, as I will argue in my next blogpost.

One thing I find difficult to handle is the constant stream of emails from readers. Some are notes of thanks – people having had the intuition that we should cap personal wealth for a long time, and are pleased to see the arguments worked out (if you sent such an email and I did not respond: thank you for writing, and apologies for not being able to respond, despite trying to respond to as many of them as possible). Others are notes of insults – people saying I am an idiot, dangerous, that I will ruin the economy, or that my university should fire me (I’ve not had any evidence that any of those haters read the book, by the way). The third category is those who have serious questions or objections, either from their own personal lives, or from how this would affect society. It would be ideal if I could answer this last group of emails, but they require the most time. And the average daily time I spend responding to email is already ridiculously long. Still, I wish I could respond to those questions and criticism, since I feel I owe this to the readers, and one would hope it would take the discussion forward.

I’ve been pondering how to deal with his, and hope I have now found a solution. The time spent answering one email writer is not much less than what I’d need to write a brief blogpost here. Therefore I’ve decided I will start answering some of the questions and critiques here on CT, in a series ‘More on Limitarianism’, so that I’m not just engaging in a debate with one email writer, but hopefully with more people. Before I start, let me open the floor here for anyone who has comments, questions, suggestions on the book (or the ideas). I’m not promising I will be quick in discussing them in a blogpost (since the stream of media requests isn’t becoming any quieter just yet, and there are plenty of other tasks to do), but I do promise I will do my best to engage with as many of them as I can.



patricia 04.13.24 at 4:19 pm

I am just finishing your book. You make very lucid, compelling arguments with a lot of good back up. I believe it would be more likely to gain traction with a different name for your ideas – for better or worse, most people are aspirational. It is hard for them to get excited by the prospects of a limit (no matter how reasonable or how much they agree . I’m sure you’ve heard this before and I wonder what other terms you have considered … Stakeholderism? Social Contractism? Inclusive Capitalism?
I also wonder why there is not more coverage of the Nordic Model, especially before it began transitioning in the 1990’s.


DCA 04.13.24 at 7:54 pm

An excellent idea. I once had something published to moderate media attention; after the first ten or so interviews I knew the likely questions and wrote a FAQ, for each question giving a compact if not complete answer. Now I can send it as part of a response, and two journalists have responded with “I wish more people would do this”.


Jim Buck 04.14.24 at 8:14 am

I have just started reading the book. So, all I may say at this point is that I agree with Patricia, your project need a better name. I do not say this suggestion of mine is better than yours, but here it is: Cap-it-allism.


Doctor Science 04.14.24 at 10:00 pm

I always think of it as the Alice Tax, as I first heard it formulated by Alice Trillin. “Alice believed in the principle of enoughness”. “Limitarianism” is rather confusing and intellectual-sounding, “enoughness” has a good solid sense of normality, which is important since you’re really talking more about a change in culture and mores than of law.


Thor Ribeiro 04.15.24 at 12:13 am

Great points, Ingrid!

Allow me just a silly comment for laughs. What’s the plan to deal with the Connor Roys of this world, that have no talent or self-esteem other than their money, and think having only 5 million wil drive one “un poco loco”. How do we rehabilitate these people, which seem to me more prone to try and fight in the white army against impossible odds against any limit to their inheritance than to try and live among the mortals?


Gar Lipow 04.15.24 at 12:52 am

Bounded capitalism? Rebooted Capitalism? Capitalism for Sane People?


John Q 04.15.24 at 7:44 am

I need to reread the book, which I only saw in draft. But it’s worth distinguishing between two interpretations of, and justifications of, limitarianism that have occurred to me.

First, the resources being consumed by the ultra-wealthy would be better allocated to poor or middle-income people, even if the reallocation process dissipated most of the resources. For example, it would be a good thing to take $1000 from Elon Musk if we could buy a $2 bednet for a single African family, dissipating $998 along the way. Scaling up, it would be good to take $100 billion from Musk and buy bednets for 100 million African families. This is a straightforward application of both classical utilitarianism and the teachings of Jesus – I’m sure it could be derived from other ethical systems.

Second, the existence of billion-dollar fortunes is actively harmful to society as a whole, because of the resulting harm to democracy, negative externalities from excess consumption (private jets) and so on. We should strive to limit or break up such fortunes even if it is costly to do so.

It’s not straightforward to say which of these positions has more radical political implications. The second is more radical as regards the ultra-rich (those above the maximum limit) but has no obvious implications for the merely rich. The typical member of the 1 per cent doesn’t exercise outsized political power or own a private jet.

By contrast, the first argument extends, in a slightly less radical version, to all incomes in the top 1 per cent (including some well-off academics such as me). A variety of predistribution measures and a top marginal rate of 70 per cent would yield substantial benefits on a standard utilitarian calculation.


steven t johnson 04.16.24 at 3:01 pm

The mice voted to bell the cat.

Levity aside, it seems to me that all the foundations and endowments should be sharply limited as well. The money doesn’t go directly into the pockets of their founders but there is considerable personal benefit plus the political and social powers indirectly conferred by such protected wealth are I think exactly the sort of reason limits on wealth are desirable in the first place.

The real problem is whether to break up banks and other financial entities too, no?


Robert 04.17.24 at 3:50 pm

Re John (#7):

“For example, it would be a good thing to take $1000 from Elon Musk if we could buy a $2 bednet for a single African family, dissipating $998 along the way.”

That’s incorrect, I think. It would be closer to correct if the $1,000 were being spent on Musk’s personal lifestyle. But, even then, that $1,000 if spent would diffuse out into the economy, Musk and others would pay taxes on the economic activity deriving from that, and ultimately you’d have a lot more good than if 99.8% of that capital ceased to exist.

It seems to me there are two issues here that have to be disaggregated. One is personal consumption by the rich. This is flashy, but relatively minor. The second, more important issue, is power. Musk can direct a vast amount of economic activity via his fortune. Musk’s money is not idle, or wasted. But he can direct it into the investments he wants. That’s a lot of power for a single person. It makes sense to me to limit that.


Derek Bowman 04.17.24 at 5:49 pm

Re: Robert (#9)

I’ve got great news. If 99.8% of that capital gets spent on administrative and distribution costs in the course of transferring the remaining .2% to the least well off, that money will still circulate out into the economy, generating all the positive externalities you describe!


engels 04.17.24 at 9:06 pm

ultimately you’d have a lot more good than if 99.8% of that capital ceased to exist

And a lot more evil presumably, depending on what that economic activity is and where the taxes are being paid.


engels 04.17.24 at 9:09 pm

Great so see this getting so much attention and I like the term “limitarianism” fwiw.

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