The Dangers Of Wealth
That the possession of wealth conveys political power has long been a source of suspicion. For both Plato (428–348 or 347B.C.E.), in The Republic, and Aristotle an oligarchic constitution was associated with rule by the wealthy "few." In both cases this was a negative association. The wealthy used their economic power to rule politically in their own interest, as opposed to the interests of all. In the idea of a "cycle of constitutions" propounded by Polybius (c. 200–118 B.C.E.), in his Histories [of Rome] (and reiterated many times over during the succeeding centuries), oligarchy represented a corrupt falling away from good rule by the few (aristocracy) but that was itself displaced in reaction to its self-serving rule by the initially virtuous rule of the many (what became called democracy).
Contemporary (liberal) democracies all have practices and policies that in some way aim to forestall any pernicious effects that might follow from concentration of wealth in a few hands. Some of these are direct. The buying of votes is universally made illegal but frequently, in addition, there are restrictions on the use of money in political campaigns. Other prescriptions are indirect, for example, wealth taxes, and other redistributive fiscal mechanisms. One of the intentions behind such policies is to enhance the possibility of the equality of opportunity. If jobs are "open to the talents," if individuals are provided with the educational resources (in particular) to enable them to compete, then the differing amount of wealth subsequently earned is justified. However, for that differential to pass down to the next generation undiluted is, it is argued, to undermine that equality. It remains, however, one of the longest running disputes in modern political philosophy the extent to which policies designed to neutralize the inequalities associated with wealth infringe upon the value of liberty and autonomy. A libertarian thinker like Robert Nozick (1938–2002), in his Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974), argues that attempts to impose a preferred distribution of assets illicitly infringe on the rights of individuals. More egalitarian writers, like Michael Walzer (b. 1937) in his Spheres of Justice (1983) or, from very different premises, Jürgen Habermas (b. 1929) in a range of writings, seek to keep the political or civic sphere free of the baneful effects of the economic power and reach of wealth.
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