Wealthy rebel: why an heiress doesn’t want her money

The Austrian Marlene Engelhorn belongs to the movement demanding: “Tax me now!” She wants to voluntarily give up 90 percent of her assets. “It’s an insolence towards society that I’m allowed to have this power,” she says in an interview with about her motive. There are very few rich people who talk about their wealth. Why are you doing it?

Marlene Engelhorn: It seems to be important for most of the wealthy that the power behind all their money remains veiled. This is non-transparent and dangerous, because then it is not visible how much influence individuals can pool thanks to their wealth. I can’t advocate fair taxation of wealth, but I can be non-transparent myself. My inheritance can serve as an example for public discussion based on a specific case.

If your grandmother dies, you will inherit an amount in the tens of millions. You want to give up at least 90 percent of that. What is your motive?

Wealth of this magnitude means power, lots of power. And in private hands. In a democracy, however, power is not a private matter. All sorts of things can be done with her that affect more people than the wealthy person himself. It is unfair and undemocratic when a few people inherit vast sums of money and most others do not. We should also acknowledge who created this fortune – not me. Those were the people in the company. Starting with Böhringer Mannheim, the company in which my late grandfather had shares, to the companies in which the money is currently invested. All these people don’t benefit, just me.

Do you see the inheritance as a burden or as a personal gain because you can do good with it?

Who says I can or will do good? What right do I have to decide what is good and what is bad? Especially in crises that affect everyone, decisions should not be made by just any individual who was lucky in the birth lottery. We already have a system for this: the elected parliaments. It is an insolence towards society that I am allowed to have this power. One cannot rely on the benevolence of the wealthy.

What are you up to?

In the past forty years, a few have become exceedingly wealthy. But they didn’t save the world, even though they could afford it. Just because someone has money doesn’t mean they can handle it. What is good and what is not, we ultimately have to work out together as a society.

They emphasize that the inheritance gave you “power” even though you didn’t do anything to get it. Does that mean that you generally have nothing against wealth if you have achieved something?

What is rich? We should ask ourselves this question seriously, because there is no consensus. It’s different with poverty. Every country has a poverty line, there is also an international line – if you fall below it, you are poor. We don’t have that for wealth. A definition of “abundant wealth” would help to show when an individual possesses “superior power” through wealth. And what about all the human effort that doesn’t create wealth but keeps our society going? Work that really brings something to society is paid the worst – and vice versa.

In your opinion, is the proverb “Everyone is the architect of his own fortune” only partially true or not at all?

This sentence is nonsense. No one earns wealth alone. That’s impossible. Society and the state, which provides the infrastructure, such as basic research, the education and health system, the police, public transport and last but not least the legal system, which makes property and entrepreneurship possible in the first place, always have a part in this. It is cheeky when profits from work are distributed as a matter of course in the management floor, while everyone else has to fight for every cent. Abundance and poverty are structurally linked. If you want one, you get the other.

Whatever happens to your inherited millions, they return to the economy. That means their money could soon end up with the super-rich. What does that mean for you?

That’s the point. Money should flow. It should be understood as a means and not an end. If we use a redistribution system that is democratically designed to ensure that money always flows in a balanced way from public and private sources, then we can design financial security and freedom in a completely different way. They both become more when you share them. But when the overrich treat their funds like stagnant water, they deprive society of vital resources only to neurotically hoard what they would never have without society.

From your point of view, where do you have to start in order to achieve the effect desired by “taxmenow”, to ensure more justice in the world in the long term?

We need to talk publicly about the effects of affluence and poverty and think about what kind of society we want. One in which democracy is subordinate or superior to the markets, in which all votes are equal and lobbying is only permitted if there is absolute transparency – or is it not? Why do we allow there to be people whose private wealth exceeds the budgets of many a country? These questions concern us all. So we have to find answers together.

You don’t want to donate your millions. Why not?

Philanthropy mostly just cements inequality. Also, foundations are often simply parking garages for capital. The money is in investments on the financial market and the return is used to promote a little. Much of what is worth giving money for should not be tied to the goodwill of those who have money. It’s about structural problems.

Are you thinking about investing your money in ecologically and socially sensible companies?

If it is there, hopefully it will be redistributed in a democratic process. I want to be taxed, that’s what I’m fighting for. We’ll see everything else then.

They say, “I was born into the right family.” So can one be born into a wrong one?

There are no “right” or “wrong” families. You probably have the quote from a conversation in which I point out that in a world where financial security brings freedom, wealthy families have it easier, which is why one could say that they have achieved their goals and are therefore “right”. There are social structures that make it easier for some than for others. However, these structures can also be formed in such a way that it doesn’t matter which family a person is born into for their life in society. We should consider whether the goal of social action, i.e. of politics, is not perhaps the relationship work that enables us to do just that. And in my eyes that starts with sharing.

Thomas Schmoll spoke to Marlene Engelhorn.

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