Editor’s note: This piece is republished with permission from Foundation for Economic Education.
When Elon Musk became the richest man in the world, one Redditor declared, “Elon Musk becomes richest man: First in line for the guillotine,” to which another replied, “Once his head’s off, we’re throwing Bezos on there next.”1
In August 2020, protestors set up an actual guillotine outside Jeff Bezos’s house.2 At a rally for Elizabeth Warren in 2019, the crowd began chanting, “Eat the rich,” a reference to a quote attributed to Jean-Jacques Rousseau: “When the people shall have nothing more to eat, they will eat the rich.”3
Rousseau lived in a time when starvation was an ever-present threat for many people. He was born shortly after France’s famine of 1709, in which an estimated two hundred thousand people starved to death.4 Workers in the 1780s in Paris typically spent 70–90 percent of their wages on food alone.5 Their anger toward the French aristocracy, which consisted mostly of people born into or granted wealth rather than achieving it through work and merit, was understandable, especially because of the extremely limited social mobility possible at that time.
By contrast, in the United States today, nearly 90 percent of the population never has to worry about having something to eat, and even the poorest spend a maximum of 43 percent of their income on food.6 So where does all this French Revolution-inspired rage toward the ultra-wealthy come from? Is it warranted? . . .
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1. Reddit user “ARGONIII,” accessed Feb. 17, 2022, https://www.reddit.com/r/COMPLETEANARCHY/comments/ksx1mk/elon_musk_becomes_richest_man_first_in_line_for/.
2. Emily Kirkpatrick, “There's Now a Guillotine Set Up Outside Jeff Bezos's Mansion,” VanityFair, August 28, 2020, https://www.vanityfair.com/style/2020/08/jeff-bezos-guillotine-protest-amazon-workers.
3. Talia Lavin, “How “Eat the Rich” Became the Rallying Cry for the Digital Generation,” GQ Magazine, November 5, 2019, https://www.gq.com/story/eat-the-rich-digital-generation.
4. Debra Kelly, “The Deadly Great Frost of 1709 is Still a Mystery,” Grunge, January 13, 2022, https://www.grunge.com/394696/the-deadly-great-frost-of-1709-is-still-a-mystery.
5. Jennifer Llewellyn and Steve Thompson, “Harvest Failures,” Alpha History, August 15, 2020, accessed February 10, 2022, https://alphahistory.com/frenchrevolution/harvest-failures/.
6. “Food Security and Nutrition Assistance,” Economic Research Service, United States Department of Agriculture, November 8, 2021, https://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/ag-and-food-statistics-charting-the-essentials/food-security-and-nutrition-assistance; Laura Lloyd, “US Poor Spend High Percentage of Income on Food,” Food Business News, November 11, 2016, https://www.foodbusinessnews.net/articles/7188-u-s-poor-spend-high-percentage-of-income-on-food.
7. Bernie Sanders, Twitter, September 24, 2019, accessed February 17, 2022, https://twitter.com/BernieSanders/status/1176481898685710337?r.
8. Rebekka Ayres, “Billionaires Should Not Exist—Here’s Why,” TeenVogue, December 29, 2021, https://www.teenvogue.com/story/billionaires-should-not-exist; “AOC Calls Out Billionaires at MLK Day Event | NowThis,” YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lAnRUepeb_U.
9. David Youngberg, “Income Is Determined by the Scarcity of Your Contribution, Not the Value of Human Worth,” Foundation for Economic Education, April 11, 2019, https://fee.org/articles/income-is-determined-by-the-scarcity-of-your-contribution-not-the-value-of-human-worth/.
10. “How Much a Tesla Employee Make in an Hour? More than their Other EV industry Counterparts?” News18 Business Desk, January 9, 2022, https://www.news18.com/news/business/how-much-a-tesla-employee-make-in-an-hour-more-than-their-other-ev-industry-counterparts-4586189.html; Mark Matousek, “The median Tesla employee made 81% more than the median American in 2018,” Business Insider, May 1, 2019, https://www.businessinsider.com/teslas-median-employee-made-81-more-than-the-median-american-in-2018-2019-5?r=US&IR=T.
11. Dylan Matthews, “You're not imagining it: the rich really are hoarding economic growth,” Vox, August 8, 2017, https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2017/8/8/16112368/piketty-saez-zucman-income-growth-inequality-stagnation-chart.
12. Rachel Sandler, “Here’s How Much Money Jeff Bezos Has Reaped From Selling Amazon Stock,” Forbes, June 24, 2021, https://www.forbes.com/sites/rachelsandler/2021/06/24/heres-how-much-money-jeff-bezos-has-reaped-from-selling-amazon-stock/.
13. Ludwig von Mises, “Economic Policy: Thoughts for Today and Tomorrow: 1st Lecture: Capitalism,” Mises.org, https://mises.org/library/economic-policy-thoughts-today-and-tomorrow/html/c/46.
14. Henry Hazlitt, “Private Property, Public Purpose,” Mises.org, https://mises.org/library/private-property-public-purpose.
15. Alejandro de la Garza, “How Elon Musk Built His Fortune—And Became the Richest Private Citizen in the World,” TIME, December 13, 2021, https://time.com/6127754/elon-musk-net-worth-person-of-the-year/.