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14 May 2020updated 27 Jul 2021 12:45pm

Billionaires should be scrutinised, not unthinkingly demonised

Legitimate criticism of the wealthy must not spill over into conspiracy theories.  

By Emily Tamkin

Billionaires have been blamed for the pandemic. But not all billionaire blame is created equal. 

On Wednesday, Vox’s Recode published a scoop, the gist of which was this: Bill Gates is looking at ways to get other billionaires to give more money toward the coronavirus crisis. Criticism came swiftly. “I have an idea. It starts with ‘T’”, tweeted Anand Giridharadas, author of Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, referring to “tax”. 

“If only there were some public fund billionaires could pay into along with everyone else that helps fund our infrastructure, hospitals, and public systems all at once,” tweeted Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the New York Representative and democratic socialist, also referring to taxes. 

Giridharadas and Ocasio-Cortez are making a legitimate point. Wealth in the United States is highly concentrated – and has become dramatically more so in recent decades. According to a 2019 report, wealth inequality in the US has returned to levels unseen since a century before in the so-called Roaring Twenties. That so many people have so little and are so unsupported during this pandemic is not unrelated to the extravagant fortunes of Gates and his fellow billionaires. (There are some who argue that, in view of Donald Trump’s mishandling of the crisis, they are grateful for Gates; this, however, could lead one to a discussion of whether Trump would have become president in a more equal society.)

The Microsoft founder has admittedly done a tremendous amount to combat Covid-19; among other things, the Gates Foundation devoted $125m in initial funding toward the study of effective treatments (the foundation has given a total of $250m toward other efforts against the virus). Gates’s efforts, as well as his prescient warning of a global pandemic years before Covid-19, have combined to create a conspiracy theory suggesting that he is responsible for the virus. 

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Conspiracy theories that Gates knew about Covid-19 in advance started in the winter, and spread, as these things do, from YouTube to school-shooting truther Alex Jones’s InfoWars to Fox News host Laura Ingraham, who wrote on Twitter, in connection with a tweet about Gates: “Digitally tracking Americans’ every move has been a dream of the globalists for years. This health crisis is the perfect vehicle for them to push this.” All of this helps to excuse the US administration’s handling of the crisis, to confuse an already confused population, and to increase distrust in science – but none of it helps the public.

Gates is, of course, not the only billionaire who has fallen under both legitimate critique and inane conspiracy theory. George Soros, the Hungarian-born billionaire philanthropist who has been attacked, over the past few years, by everyone from Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán to Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, to Russian president Vladimir Putin to, yes, Donald Trump, has, of course, been accused of profiting from the pandemic. 

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“If morals equalled money, George Soros would be the poorest person on the planet,” RT declared on Tuesday (12 May). RT took an interview in which Soros said “everything is up for grabs” – that there are many people who will want to use the crisis to remake society, for better or worse – and described Soros, who turns 90 in August, as “salivating” over the chance to remake society. 

But one needn’t look to Russia – where Soros poured money into science and education in the 1990s, and from which his Open Society was expelled in 2015 – for Soros-related coronavirus conspiracy theories. Nor would one need to focus on his native Hungary, where Orbán said that he was sure that, once people realised the crisis couldn’t be contained, “proposals from financial speculators” would follow, and that he “would have been highly surprised had one of the most talented sons of our country, George Soros, not appeared among these investors”.

(Orbán added that liberals “clutch the umbilical cord that George Soros pumps life fluids into”, which is, among other things, a graphic description.) In the US, One America News attempted to link the pandemic to Soros and a population-control plot.

In actuality, Soros’s Open Society has pledged $130m in coronavirus relief. One doesn’t need to applaud that – again, one can argue that no single person or foundation should have that money to begin with. We can examine reality and subsequently draw whatever conclusions and make whatever arguments we wish, but the conclusions and arguments should indeed be based on reality. 

Soros is right in at least one sense: everything is up for grabs, and society will be reshaped. In the days and weeks and months and, if we are lucky, years ahead, people will engage in honest debates about the role of billionaires and their philanthropy in our societies. People will also try to advance conspiracy theories that serve only to confuse the public and empower aspiring autocrats. The sooner that we can learn the difference between the two, the better – and safer – we’ll be.