Does wealth cause poverty?

It would if there were a fixed amount of wealth, but there obviously isn’t. There are issues here about what we should do if we wanted to move to a zero growth world in order to reduce our environmental impact, because then the amount of wealth would indeed be fixed. But that is not the world we currently live in.

It would if the wealthy stole from or exploited the poor to get rich. Of course this has often happened and still happens. Not only do people cheat and steal directly from others but people have often appropriated the commons to enrich themselves at the expense of their neighbours, from the early enclosures of common land for example to the despoiling of the environment as an economic “externality”. But to see whether this happens in any particular instance we must look at the facts, inconvenient though this may be for ideologues. The Marxist notion that any and profit is expropriated from the workers, for example, was probably more often true than not in the aftermath of the industrial revolution, but it need not be true. There can surely be such a thing as a fair wage, there can be such a thing as a fair return to enterprise or invention. To declare all profit as expropriation is to expound a tautology once it is declared in advance that all value is from labour. That is not to deny that some employers will grab whatever they can from their workers in the name of free enterprise, but not all profit is dishonest.

A better explanation of poverty existing side by side with wealth is thus that in economic relations human values are very often forgotten. People succumb to their own greed. People do not deal fairly or justly with other people. So of course there are plenty of cases of exploitation and expropriation, more than enough to keep the simple myths of the dogmatic left alive. But again, these are because values are forgotten, not because exploitation is necessarily at the heart of economic relations.

If everyone had sufficient, there would be no moral problem with some having more than sufficient. There might be practical arguments – which would have to be based on empirical evidence – that society could be better, safer, more cohesive at lower levels of inequality, but there would be no moral case for equality if everyone had enough. As a simple demonstration, inequality as such could easily be reduced by destroying the wealth of the rich. Would this help the poor? Obviously not, which shows that inequality is a false target.

Poverty itself is absolutely what we should be taking aim at. The moral outrage is that so many do not have enough. The hyper-rich may be too powerful for everyone else’s good, but that is another argument. They may have become hyper-rich by dubious means, but that too is another argument although it is one we should engage in more vigorously. Focusing on wealth as if it is the direct and only cause of poverty is a distraction which does no one any good.

Sweet ethics

Suppose you are a senior executive of a company selling sugary drinks. Your company’s profits depend on successfully selling more and more of them into both new and old markets. Your shareholders, your peers, your bosses, your workers and your own livelihood depend on this outcome, on which therefore you quite naturally focus all your efforts.

But then people start saying that sugary drinks are bad for children. You can see around you the evidence of child obesity as a growing problem and the statistics back this up. Of course, the causes of the problem are complex and the links are hard to prove. The responsibility is even harder to pin down – it’s not as if you are forcibly funnelling the drinks into captive children, choices are being made by both children and their parents. So what do you do? The first step is surely to try and find out for yourself. You commission some research into what is going on and whether your product really is causing or contributing to obesity. If it turns out that there is no link, you obviously trumpet this as loudly as possible. But what if the evidence points the other way?

There will still be some ambiguity. In the first place, obesity is not a disease as such. It is a cause of ill health, not an illness in itself. It’s not as if the drinks were dissolving children’s bones, to create a macabre example. In the second place, obesity is about excess so it is possible in principle for dietary adjustments to be made, including of course drinking in moderation although that won’t help your sales figures. But other foods – chips, burgers, donuts – are likely to be contributors. It’s not all down to the fizzy drinks.

But this story cannot be dismissed without confronting the obvious ethical dilemma. Not pushing the drinks means the end of your company and long before that the end of your career. Pushing the drinks means contributing to the ill health of children – not causing, but contributing. It’s not quite like the tobacco industry – we are here assuming there is nothing harmful about the drinks as such, just harm from drinking too many, which could perhaps be said of any food. But of course, even if you stop selling the drinks, who’s to say your competitors will? So there might be no benefit at all to children from you stopping.

So on one side there is profit, the health of a major company and the jobs of many people. On the other there are fat, unhealthy children, partly though not directly or uniquely your responsibility. What should you do? It’s a classic dilemma of our time, almost a defining ethical issue of modern capitalism.

Your first instinct as an executive will almost certainly be to defend your product. It is not harmful in moderation and no doubt you offer sugar free alternatives anyway. You hate to give ground to your competitors and you are willing to comply with any new legal restrictions, even if you consider them unnecessary and ill judged. Does that not exhaust your ethical responsibility?

Not necessarily. It is the difficult kind of question which the ancients called sorites. A man with no hair is clearly bald, as is a man with one, two, three hairs and so on. At some point however there are sufficient hairs and the man is not bald. But there is no clear transition point, no threshold. Not everything has a tipping point. Many ethical dilemmas take this form and this is one.

When does the aggressive marketing of a product which is not harmful in itself or when consumed in moderation become unethical? The bar is surely lower if the consumers are likely to be children, certainly lower if there are any signs that people can become addicted, but still, there is no obvious tipping point. That does not mean however that the point of transition is never reached. Not all men are bald. At some point it must be said that the scale of marketing and sales, if not the product itself, is just wrong because it contributes to harm. There are externalities (hidden costs which others bear) in the form of illnesses which someone has to deal with and pay for, so the company’s profits are based to some extent on exploiting these externalities. The company is not wholly innocent.

But if we accept that healthier children are a good idea, we must accept also that in a case like this the market will not produce this result unaided. If we depend on the conscience of the senior executive (you, remember, in our little fantasy), the decision will be delayed long past the point where outsiders might consider any ethical line to have been crossed. You are after all conflicted by your responsibilities to colleagues and shareholders, not to mention self interest. Worse, in the end the least sensitive and responsible company will enjoy a monopoly as others drop out. So the market fails, or rather, the market does a limited job perfectly well and returns a profit out of externalities and doubtful practices. Probably government has to step in, by a sugar tax or regulation or advertising restrictions or whatever, so that the decision balances the various interests in the interests of the community as a whole.

Not for the first time in our history, sugar may thus again test our understanding of ethical and political issues which pit wealth against human well-being.

Merit, or fortune?

I am of a generation who, born into a world in which privilege was hereditary, instinctively thought that society should be ordered on “merit” rather than accident of birth. I remember being shocked when I first went to university to hear an eminent teacher maintain that meritocracy was a terrible idea. But he was right, of course.

The idea of merit or “deserving” is murky at best. For the most part merit, be it academic achievement (which is of course what we young students wanted it to mean), entrepreneurial skill, athletic ability, creativity or anything else is as much an accident of birth as wealth or title. Even hard work, application, dedication to the task and so on are surely impossible without some natural aptitude for such effort.

But if you take merit out of the equation – and still assume that hereditary entitlement is not a great way to organise society – what is left? Raw wealth, however acquired? Celebrity? Those, in effect, are what we have increasingly, perhaps overwhelmingly, tended towards and they have always and will always have an influence. But perhaps their current dominance is an indication that “ordering” is a bad idea anyway. The more hierarchical society becomes, the less just. Ordering is necessary only for certain functions – someone has to take decisions or nothing will get done, for example. But the underlying principle should be moral equality.

Moral equality does not imply an attempt at material equality, any more than it implies that no one may exercise their talents of whatever kind, although it may imply an attempt to restrain the degree of material inequality we can tolerate. It is an assumption that differences are just differences, not indications of underlying or evident merit. The wealthy are not deserving because they are wealthy, as the deep influence of Calvin may have taught us, they are just wealthy. They are fortunate, not superior.

We could not eliminate the effects of good and bad fortune from any society even if we wanted to, nor should we try. But it matters greatly whether we frame our differences in terms of fortune or merit. One leads to compassion and if not justice then less injustice. The other leads to hardening of the heart, arrogance and ultimately suffering and instability.

Greece again

Greece has been brought to heel (or its knees) and the eurozone or EU feels more like the Fourth Reich. If that sounds offensive I am sorry, it is only because the Third was so loathsome. But what else would you call a Europe dominated by Germany in which democratic dissent is punished by draconian reprisals against a whole population?
Having said that, what on earth were Syriza thinking? Their only bargaining chip, it seemed, was that expelling them from the Eurozone would be as damaging to the Eurozone as it would be to Greece. But then it turned out that they would accept anything rather than be expelled, even defying a supportive referendum of the Greek people! What, one can only wonder, happened in the week after the referendum to change their minds? Or were they really just hoping all along that Germany would blink first, without having an alternative strategy? Crazy!
No one comes out of this with honour. There is no doubt that Greece has been profligate and that Greek public expenditure needs to be radically trimmed and brought under control. But some debt relief for Greece was the minimum assistance consistent with the solidarity among nations for which the EU is meant to stand. It is also something from which Germany itself benefited greatly in the past. OK, we understand that some things are done “pour encourager les autres” and that Syriza’s grandstanding annoyed everyone. But what has been done to Greece is shameful. It should make us all suspicious of the real motives behind the European project.

The four horsemen of the modern world

There are four existential threats to our species.

The best known and most talked about, although still stubbornly disputed, is global warming. It is probably too late to head it off, even if we really knew how. It would help if people could agree it was a threat to life and not see the very idea as a threat to their profits, but there we are. We have absolutely no idea what the consequences will be but they are unlikely to be wholesome.

The second, of which I confess I have only just become aware, is that we are already in the middle of a mass extinction of animal life on the planet, comparable in scale and perhaps effect to the extinction of the dinosaurs. This has nothing to do with global warming as such, although our sheer numbers affect both, for it is simply an effect of the pressure which human life exerts on the rest of the biosphere. Animal species for example are being lost at an alarming rate as they are pushed to the margins of survival. The figure which stands out for me is that we humans and our domestic animals now account for over 95% of animals by mass on the planet. There is no “wild”. See for example this article.┬áCan we continue to flourish without it? Probably, for a while but maybe not indefinitely.

The third is the threat of our own cleverness. Sooner or later and even though it has long been the stuff of science fiction our creations will get the better of us. We are not clever enough to foresee all the consequences of all our actions. We will create a bio-catastrophe through genetic engineering or a machine we cannot control or software than deems us redundant or some other technological oversight – provided of course we don’t just blow ourselves up.

The fourth has always been with us and come close to succeeding in wiping us out on several occasions – nature itself. We think we are in control, but a major volcanic event, for example, could bring us to our knees. Or a change in climate causing drought or famine. Or a naturally occurring disease might arise which we could not defeat in time – it is less than a hundred years since flu claimed more lives than a World War, for example. A compilation, in other words, of the old horsemen.

In my lifetime the human population of the earth has roughly trebled. There are a lot of us and it would take something extraordinary to get all of us. Fewer humans would paradoxically relieve some of the pressures from some of these four causes, perhaps even making the survival of the species more likely. But it would not be a pretty process. Imagine going back in short order even to the global population level of the middle of the twentieth century, or in other words wiping out two thirds – two out of three! – of the people on the planet.

It would be daft to claim that a stronger sense of values will make all these threats go away. A species which thought about what really mattered rather than, or even as well as, how to make a quick profit might have a better chance, though. And they might both live better and behave with more dignity when disaster arrived.

Equality and neoliberalism

We, or at least I, tend to think of social equality as an aspiration of the left in politics, although I have argued in my recent book that it misdirects many efforts and that material sufficiency (lack of poverty across many dimensions) is a better social goal. However, the idea of equality also feeds the right wing of politics, especially the extreme, neoliberal kind.

How can this be when neoliberalism produces and endorses such massive inequality in society, actively championing “private affluence and public squalor”? (How apt incidentally Galbraith’s phrase from the sixties seems today!) It is because equality excuses inaction. If we are all equal, the poor must somehow be to blame for their own plight for if some succeed, why not all? Those who get rich have done so by merit, surely, so why should they help the less meritorious? Why should there be institutions of government to redress imbalances if everyone is equal but some more hard working than others?

Like many ideological positions this one has a grain of truth which makes it hard to dislodge. Many people do of course succeed because they work very hard. That is why the fruits of hard work should be as little disturbed as possible. But the fact is, however unpalatable to left or right, we are not all equal in all respects. Some are talented, some naturally diligent, some favoured by birth circumstances, while others are discriminated against, or broken in their early years, or just lack any talent to succeed at least in the world they know. “Merit” is largely a matter of chance for which if we are favoured we should be grateful rather than thinking it is all our own doing.

That is why we need ways of balancing the effects of chance. Gratitude and compassion demand them. That is also why material (as opposed to moral) equality should not be assumed or striven for, because whatever the intention it feeds nasty parts of the political right.

“The road to character” – David Brooks

Just finished reading David Brooks’s latest book. Three cheers (or if you prefer, five stars) for both the crystal writing and the theme. His book and mine share a concern about the loss of focus on what broadly I call values and he calls character in modern culture, not only as to substance but even as to the ability to discuss matters of “morality” because the anchors of meaning have been lost (a point Alisdair Macintyre was making forty years ago, mind).

You could be fascinated by this book even without interest in its crucial theme just for the biographical sketches of the subjects Brooks chooses. I particularly liked Samuel Johnson (and I suspect Brooks did too) though in my case partly because I knew woefully little of his life. Holiday reading sorted!

This biographical/anecdotal method has its drawbacks, however, though it is the default method for tackling serious subjects for popular consumption since Malcolm Gladwell’s first impact. The strands of Brooks’s main theme are sometimes obscured, even contradicted, because inevitably no two of his subjects embody exactly the same traits or follow the same path. Also, it is inevitable that he can choose only relatively famous, well documented lives, which means both that the examples he chooses are not necessarily typical and even that some of the traits he admires may be artefacts, more to do with the individuals’ success and fame than their character or values – or in Brooks’s terms, more Adam 1 than Adam 2.

There is throughout the book a justifiable disdain for simplistic ethical theorising, a theme that life and the world are too complex for simple maxims. True enough, but in the end we all need some touchstone by which to make our most difficult and even our everyday choices. Brooks acknowledges this in the final chapter by stating a series of lessons he feels emerge from his biographies. I can’t help feeling – but of course I would say this, wouldn’t I?! – that by condemning theory the hard philosophical work has been shirked a bit. You could for example seek to model your life on George Marshall or Samuel Johnson or one of the others, much as religious believers often seek to imitate their founder. But the life you chose would never quite fit the conditions you faced and you would have to rely on a simplified version of the exemplar’s life anyway, which might mislead. And that ignores the philosophical heart of the matter – why choose that particular life?

But all that said, this is a fine book which because of Brooks’s justifiably high reputation will do more than I ever could to bring an important – crucial – theme back into public debate. Three cheers.