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Limitarianism: a philosophical dispute

by Ingrid Robeyns on February 21, 2022

In my last post, on the public debate on limitarianism, I responded to Matt’s philosophical doubts about limitarianism by saying that there was a debate on this matter forthcoming in The Journal of Political Philosophy, and that I would post it once published in Early View. So, here it is.

Robert Huseby wrote a critique on limitarianism arguing that we don’t need that idea, given that we have egalitarianism and sufficientarianism. I responded in two ways. First, by saying that there are other ways to judge a philosophical idea than looking at philosophical distinctiveness (in other words, Huseby and I have different views on what we want political philosophy to do, and I argue that this has implications for judging the value of limitarianism). Second, within the meta-theoretical choices made by Huseby, I object to his arguments.

Those interested in this intra-academic-philosophical debate, feel free to chime in. If anyone wants to read the paper by Robert Huseby (since unlike mine, it’s not open access), I’m happy to send it to anyone dropping me an email.

NB: Luigi Caranti and Nunzio Alì published in the Italian Journal Politica e Società a paper with the same title as Huseby’s paper, voicing overlapping criticisms. Email them or me if you want to get hold of a copy.

CBS on the superrich and limitarianism

by Ingrid Robeyns on January 23, 2022

We were having birthday cake with my youngest son who turned 14 today, when CBS aired an item on the Sunday Morning Show for which I was interviewed. The item was on the question whether one can be too rich. As regular readers of this blog know, I’ve written a couple of papers (this one being open access) and more journalistic pieces (e.g. this) that we should answer this affirmatively. So now CBS decided the idea deserved an item, and I think they did a great job in putting several different relevant concerns together in a mere 8 minutes. It can be watched online here. (I believe they could have found more vocal opponents of limitarianism, but I guess these voices get plenty of airtime elsewhere?)

Abigail Disney has a line of critique from which I’ve so far tried to steer away – namely that becoming superwealthy changes a person and their character for the worse. That resonates with some of the findings in the intriguing book by Lauren Greenfield, Generation Wealth. Although I wrote very briefly (in Dutch, alas) on the scientific studies that we have that suggests that extreme wealth concentration might lead to unhappier people than being moderately well-off, I am hesitant to write more about this, for two reasons. One is that arguing that they are less happy and that therefore they should not be so rich is quit paternalistic (and most approaches in political philosophy and social ethics reject paternalistic arguments). Still, it also affects their children, so the paternalism objection might be less strong than at first sight. Arguing that they become less virtuous (read: bad people) is something that I cannot say since I haven’t tried to find the relevant studies (if they exist); moreover, it also seems a non-starter if we want to engage in a political debate that should include those that are superrich, or that defend the superrich. The other reason why I haven’t gone down this road so far is that I think the other arguments for limitarianism are strong enough in themselves to carry the claim – why then introduce a more contentious one, except if the evidence were to be overwhelming?

I don’t think I’ve announced on this blog the other news I have on limitarianism, which is that I’m writing a trade book on the topic, which is under contract with Allen Lane/Penguin (for the UK), Astra (for North America), and translations secured in Dutch, German, Korean, Italian, Japanese, Russian, and Spanish (the magic that working with an agent does!). The manuscript is due after the (Northern Hemisphere) Summer, so I’ll be having more posts on this matter over the next months.

There is such a thing as being too rich

by Ingrid Robeyns on July 12, 2021

I spoke to some US-based scholars today about a study they are planning to do on the question whether American citizens think one can say that at some point, one is having too much money. Long-time readers of our blog might recall that in January 2018 I asked you for input on a study I was setting up in the Netherlands to find out whether the Dutch think there is the symmetrical thing of a poverty line – a riches line. And yes, they do. The study has in the meantime been conducted and published in the journal Social Indicators Reserach, and is open access – available to all. I am very grateful to my collaborators and (economic) sociologists Tanja van der Lippe, Vincent Buskens, Arnout van de Rijt and Nina Vergeldt, since I would never have been able to do this on my own: the last time I did empirical work was in 2002 (and in the good tradition of economics graduate training, I never collected my own data when I was trained as an economist, hence it was a great adventure to set up this survey).

Based on our data, we find that 96,5% of the respondents made a distinction between a family that is rich and one that is extremely rich, whereby the standard of living of the latter is described as: “This family has much more than they need to lead an affluent life. They never have to consider whether they can afford certain luxury spending, and even then, they still have plenty of money left to do extraordinary things that almost no one can afford. No one needs that much luxury.” [click to continue…]

The most blasphemous idea in contemporary discourse?

by Ingrid Robeyns on September 21, 2019

I have no idea how he found it, but George Monbiot read an (open access) academic article that I wrote, with the title “What, if Anything, is Wrong with Extreme Wealth?‘ In this paper I outline some arguments for the view that there should be an upper limit to how much income and wealth a person can hold, which I called (economic) limitarianism. Monbiot endorses limitarianism, saying that it is inevitable if we want to safeguard life on Earth.

As Monbiot’s piece rightly points out, there are many reasons to believe that there should be a cap on how much money we can have. Having too much money is statistically highly likely to lead to taking much more than one’s fair share from the atmosphere’s greenhouse gasses absorbing capacity and other ecological commons; it is a threat to genuine democracy; it is harmful to the psychological wellbeing of the children of the rich, and to the capacity of the rich to act autonomously when it concerns moral questions (which includes the reduced capacity for empathy of the rich); and, as I’ve argued in a short Dutch book on the topic that I published earlier this year, extreme wealth is hardly ever (if ever at all) deserved. And if those reasons weren’t enough, one can still add the line of Peter Singer and the effective altruists that excess money would have much greater moral and prudential value if it were spent on genuine needs, rather than on frivolous wants.

Monbiot wrote: “This call for a levelling down is perhaps the most blasphemous idea in contemporary discourse.”
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