Work and welfare

Suppose that, through the use of machines, sufficient resources could be produced without full employment. The balance between the forms of work and welfare that we are used to would have to change. Since we are arguably in the middle of a transition to such a state now we need to think about how they might change. Otherwise, and we can already see this happening, we will move back towards three broad tiers of society – the top wealth owners who can easily live and even get richer on what are basically rents; those with relatively secure jobs or other job related incomes like pensions or small businesses; and the “precariat” as they have been aptly called, who rely on occasional work, zero hours contracts, welfare benefits etc and for whom poverty is never far away. So far, so Victorian, but the enormous danger is that this structure of society is not stable, not in equilibrium. It depends at the very least on the acquiescence of the precariat, whether through the modern equivalent of bread and circuses, through apathy and inertia or, more likely, through a conviction that the order of things is too complex to change, one of the main axioms of neoliberalism.

The era after the industrial revolution led both to unprecedentedly nasty wars which were in large part the spilling over of commercial (imperial) competition into violence and to violent revolutions within some societies. Although ultimately better conditions for workers were brought about particularly by pressure from unionism and the labour movement generally, in many societies it was a close run thing. This degree of progress was accompanied by a partly successful push towards democratic control of societies, but not universally and not without some dark diversions through dictatorships of different kinds. We cannot be confident that the outcome of re-running the experiment will be equally benign, especially when democracy has been corrupted to the point of uselessness by the introduction of deliberately undemocratic structures like the European Union on one hand and on the other, by the blatant manipulation of public emotions without regard for truth or balance which is what now passes as political skill.

Thus it is important to consider how work and rewards are or can be related in society. In the ancient world the balance was very different and NOT working was often the prerogative of the citizen. Slaves worked, citizens didn’t, at least well-to-do citizens didn’t. There may have been other civic obligations, like fighting in the army, but labour for income was not something on which citizens prided themselves.

In fact, in aristocratic societies both yesterday and today the elite do not work but own most of the wealth and receive and spend most of the income. Typically these have been rentier societies, with the income of the elite coming from wealth (generally land) and very little else. In more modern societies the particular form of work we call entrepreneurial activity became more valued, although much of what passes as high entrepreneurship today remains rent-seeking behaviour dressed up with bustle. But in the twentieth century income distribution generally became more tied to work and median incomes were gradually and slowly raised as labour pressed for their effort to be recognised in income distribution. That process has been reversed or at least halted in the last few decades by neoliberalism, with huge pressure on wages except at the very top to benefit profits. The highest “wages”, those of the most senior executives, have become in effect rents on the holding of high office in a company, out of all proportion to effort or effectiveness.

All this is worth reciting only to show that the relationship between work and reward is and always has been complicated. It is simply a myth that work and reward were always linked closely together. “If you don’t work you don’t eat” may sound robust and fair and may be so in some limited scenarios, but as a depiction of real societies it has seldom if ever applied and it has very rarely applied to elites. It is not a principle on which any complex society has been based and it is doubtful, even by the time all the humane exceptions to it have been allowed, whether it ever could be. So although the new predicament of how to distribute the goods and necessities of life if sufficient were available without everyone working needs to be thought about very carefully, the link it seems to threaten between work and reward is not universal, nor eternal, nor even particularly common.

Democracy and Europe

Democracy in a small enough context can mean that people can individually influence decisions that may affect them. It does not mean that they will get their own way, for of course they may be outvoted, so it may still happen that a democratic decision is imposed on the unwilling. Nor is there any guarantee that decisions will be good ones, for the majority may be wrong just as any individual can be wrong. But at least everyone has a chance to influence the decision. The tyranny of a majority you had a chance to be part of is somehow more palatable than a tyranny you were excluded from altogether.

This idea (sentiment?) has to be abandoned however when the number of people involved is too great. Even before that threshold is passed, decisions may be sufficiently complex that many individuals do not have the knowledge or experience to make an informed decision. They will then probably follow with their vote whomever they feel has the right expertise and commands their confidence. So we quickly arrive at the idea of representative or leadership democracy. If we cannot all participate in every decision, because of numbers or complexity, the next best thing is to have a say in who gets to make decisions. This is the basis of western democracy in its many forms.

The people get to choose periodically who will rule and crucially they get to remove leaders who no longer impress, so that the rulers must always bear this in mind in their decision making. Combined with checks and balances, such as divisions of power and rights of appeal, transparency and openness of information where these exist, this is the way most western states are organised. At its heart is the idea that power depends on and derives from the consent of the majority of the people for a given individual or group to lead, a consent which may be withdrawn if the results are unsatisfactory or unpalatable.

A significant part of the case against the European Union is that it has been deliberately designed to evade such democratic control. Despite the changes in the Lisbon Treaty, the unelected Commission not only holds great executive power and has the duty to enforce EU decisions against member states but has the sole right to propose legislation. Basically, much can happen just because the Commission wants it to happen and nothing can happen unless the Commission proposes it should. True, the European Parliament must now approve the appointment of the Commission initially and has the somewhat “nuclear” option to dismiss the whole Commission by a vote of no confidence. But whatever its supporters may say, this is far from being the same as the way governments are chosen in parliamentary democracies, where executive power goes to those who have participated in and won an election themselves. Besides, if the Parliament does refuse to ratify the commission it opposes itself to the Council of ministers rather than the Commisssion. And once ratified, to a large degree there are no democratic controls on the executive powers of the Commission. Yet it acts in many respects as the European Government. Indeed, it is charged to take its own view of what is best for Europe, in contrast to the council of ministers where national government interests are represented or the parliament which, however inadequately, represents the people directly.

Unfortunately, this is a highly technical issue which does not lend itself to soundbites. But significant reform in this area, possibly even abolishing the Commission or replacing it with a regulatory body without a stranglehold on legislation or wide executive powers, would go a long way to changing popular perception of the EU and making its institutions more accountable and responsive to its people. It should be central to the debate about whether the UK continues to be a member.

After all, that debate should not be about trade and whether membership adds or subtracts on balance from UK GDP, because nobody really knows about that and the putative answers that are touted are all compromised by self interest.

It should not be about whether the UK can again be a great power on its own, because the negative answer to that question is surely beyond debate and only nostalgia keeps the argument alive.

It should not even be about control of borders because as the current refugee crisis shows sheer numbers rather than laws are the issue there.

It should certainly not be about entitlement to welfare benefits which seems to have risen to the top of the U.K. wish list, maybe (is this too cynical?) because it can be settled very easily.

The debate should simply be about the way we in the UK relate to the rest of Europe. It makes no sense to have an antagonistic attitude to our nearest neighbours, we must surely cooperate on as many issues as possible. We must trade with them as much as possible and we need to find joint solutions to many problems, not least security and the environment, which in the modern world a single nation state cannot address in isolation. It does not necessarily follow however that we should all have the same laws, the same currency or the same policies, still less merge our national identities into a supra-national state.

But the combination of the Commission’s powers and the de facto position that it alone represents a European standpoint means that at the heart of all European legislation is a drive towards more and more integration – closer and closer union. It is no use the President of the Council (the key intergovernmental body) assuring the UK government that closer union is not an aim of the EU, nor the UK government interpreting that as an “opt-out” from closer union for the UK. The institutions of the EU and in particular the Commission enshrine integration as an objective and put incremental progress towards it beyond democratic control.

So the question is whether it is better for the UK to stay in the EU as it stands and try to reform it from within, or to leave and try to encourage it to evolve in a sensible, more democratic, non-integrationist direction from without. The pity is that the current renegotiation might have given us a unique opportunity to push for change, but it looks like the chance will be squandered for some relatively minor reform of welfare entitlements. It has to be said that a strategy of reform from within has failed miserably so far – and why wouldn’t it, when the powerful original members are pro-integration? Why then should we expect it to work in the future? Thus the choice is to accept a flawed and ill-founded set of institutions which reduce our freedoms and take us towards a destination none of us want, or leave and try to start again. Neither option is attractive or without danger. But Brexit may be the lesser of two evils.

One thing is certain. A “yes” vote in the referendum will mean business as usual. A “no” might mean that the will of the people is taken seriously in Brussels and Berlin and that renegotiation acquires new urgency even after the vote.

Replacing Trident

This is as much a profession of ignorance as anything else, I realise. But the thing is, I entirely see the old Cold War logic of deterrent nuclear missiles in submarines, targeted against an obvious, similarly armed potential foe, namely the Soviet Union. The submarines were supposedly difficult to find and destroy. In the event of an attack on the UK, which might even destroy all major cities and government institutions, a counter strike was still possible even if pointless, thus creating deterrence by mutually assured destruction.
However, I don’t understand the logic of replacing Trident with a similar setup, even though both our major national parties are currently committed to it. Whom are we deterring? At whom are the missiles to be aimed and potentially fired? If there were a crippling attack, presumably disrupting communications and the chain of command, what would be the submarine captains’ instructions? How would they know what to do?
Is this a classic example of fighting the last war, even if in this case the Cold War? Leaving aside the obvious observation that it is difficult to deter a suicide bomber by threats of destruction, the uncertainties are far too great for the deterrent strategy which worked in the Cold War to work today against terrorists and rogue states. So what are we doing trying to repeat it? Even if the greatest threat is deemed to come from a major power, which one is it and how does the isolated submarine captain know at the relevant time? If it is country X, what is to stop the enemies of country X launching a nuclear strike on the UK in the happy expectation that our submariners will launch their missiles?
Thus we could be made less not more secure by deterrence in modern conditions. Even if nuclear weapons are actually deemed essential options for our security rather than (as one sometimes suspects) the international prestige of our politicians, surely the strategy of missiles under the ocean cut off from outside interference is no longer relevant.
What are we doing? It’s not as if we couldn’t think of anything else to do with the cash, even if it were spent on other weapons. But the political class dare not voice such thoughts because to do so might be attacked as “soft”. So we blunder along into another expensive defence mistake. Plus ca change.

How can we tax multinationals fairly?

Large multinational companies can easily avoid paying tax in any particular jurisdiction, to the degree that many pay virtually nothing in the UK on massive business streams. But tax is and always has been a creature constructed by laws and if there is widespread abuse or unhappiness with the current results the only answer is to consider how best to change the laws. We have inherited certain taxes from the past, in this case most notably Corporation Tax which itself dates back only to the 1960’s. But the rules don’t seem to work for multinationals. Perhaps it is time to consider whether the notion of taxing profit, the net income of a company available to contribute to public purposes among other things, is outdated in an age when companies can choose where and how they manifest such surplus.

Moving profit around the world to minimise tax is nothing new, of course. For decades companies have tried transferring goods, intellectual property rights and licences, expertise and anything else they could think of so that costs appeared in higher tax countries and profits in low tax or no tax countries. For decades some governments have tried to keep up by disallowing each new device as it appeared, while others connived at avoidance by offering very low tax environments so that they would gain revenue at a low rate but on large volumes of diverted profit. The process was like a game, played for high stakes but relatively even sided until about the turn of the century. By then the ability to switch ownership, money, even the location of a sale with a few keystrokes had become an overwhelming advantage. It seems now that the game has been decisively won by the companies.

So if we believe that multinationals should contribute revenue for public purposes, it is no use tinkering with the rules of the game. We must change the game itself. One way to go might be to tax sales revenues rather than profits. Another would be to divide declared world profits according to sales revenues in each country, the so called unitary tax method which some US states tried to impose in the 1970’s but fell foul of international tax treaties. World profits are less understated than country profits because they are what justifies a company’s management to its shareholders and drives the share price on which executive bonuses often depend.

But both of these suggestions suffer from the same problem. When you buy something on the internet from the UK you may without even realising it be dealing with a company in a tax haven (such as Luxembourg) and that is where your purchase is filled. No UK-based company actually sells anything in this instance. The website says “UK” but the small print says otherwise.

So the solution has to be radical to take account of the radical change the Internet has brought about in the way business is done. Here is one idea. The location of the buyer rather than the seller could be legislated to be the determining factor of where a sale takes place for tax purposes. That location is not difficult to detect and police on the internet. Indeed, multinationals themselves could be required to log sales according to the location of the buyer and tax could then be based on “value of goods bought per country”. World profits, for example, could be divided up by this measure, or a new tax could replace tax on profits and be based on it.

This is not a trivial change. It would require alteration or even unwinding of international tax treaties and understandings built up over decades. It would of course be bitterly opposed by multinationals and their apologists. It would be opposed even in the forums which consider international tax matters like the OECD by countries who have done well out of providing a home for tax avoidance. It would obviously only work fully and equitably if it was adopted by many countries, and although it could work perfectly well unilaterally there would be the usual, inevitable and false scares that it would destroy jobs. In fact, it would only destroy jobs in the tax avoidance industry, because the location of customers is one factor even multinationals do not control. Of course, someone would eventually come up with a way to cheat the system (someone always does) but meanwhile multinationals might contribute a little more to the countries they harvest.

Taxing multinationals fairly is thus possible but it is not easy or quick. It requires radical changes in the way the taxation of multinational sales and profits are understood and in the way countries seek to divide tax sources between them. All the more reason to address the problem sooner rather than later, by getting such ideas onto the political agenda.

British air strikes on Syria

I just do not know whether the UK dropping bombs on – or even firing incredibly well targeted missiles at – Syria will help to defeat Daesh, as we are now told we should call the vicious bandits who masquerade there as religious. I do not know whether it will bring peace to that exhausted part of the world. It seems intrinsically unlikely, since three major powers are already blasting away and it seems that their efforts are insufficient, or why else would they be eager for us to have a go? But the intelligence reports and the military knowledge are not something I have at my disposal so how can I make an informed judgement about such a very complex situation? In that I am, ironically, in the same position as most MP’s who voted on the matter, but that happens.

But as I read the reports of this week’s debate in the House of Commons, the principal argument seemed to be the same very bad argument which underpinned our participation in the invasion of Iraq. “Our friends are doing it, we don’t want to be left out or they may think the worse of us.” Killing people to defend others is certainly ethically acceptable in the right circumstances, but killing people to enhance one’s reputation or be part of the in-crowd? I doubt it.

I was left with other serious misgivings, of which two will suffice. First, most people seem to accept that air strikes are only of real use in support of a ground offensive, which makes a sort of sense to a military layman. You can destroy things from the air and you can make life very difficult for those on the ground, but you cannot retake territory. But none of the Western powers is interested in a ground offensive, so a mythical army of 70,000 local “moderate” fighters was conjured up. There is clearly no such army, there is at best a multitude of small rival groups. Even the total number of ground fighters who could be described as “moderate” in their level of fanaticism is probably much smaller than suggested. Many people have pointed this out and it seems now to be commonly accepted but it must have been well known when the case was set out. It was, in fact, a brazen lie.

The second serious objection was to the use of the term “terrorist sympathisers” by the Prime Minister to describe anyone who disagreed with the government case. It is impossible, then, to disagree with the government without sympathising with terrorists? There is no possibility that the government may be mistaken, even on points of detail? This is just nasty, it is bullying of the sort we associate with totalitarian regimes. Logically, it is the weakest sort of argument, nearly always used to bolster a suspect case, the argumentum ad hominem, which translates from Latin to soccer as playing the man rather than the ball. But politically, it suggests a willingness to smear and discredit rather than discuss, a desire not to bother with the real substance of the issue at all. It is the sort of tactic which distorts democracy because it will not concede the essential prerequisite of democracy, that there can be honest opposition. It is one step away from arresting dissenters, and only a few steps away from fascism.

I do not know whether the UK dropping bombs on Syria will bring peace. But I know that the way we came to that decision has made me ashamed of my government and fearful for my country.

Neoliberalism enslaves us

Neoliberalism is very different from an older style of conservative politics, which followed Burke in urging caution about institutional change because institutions may embody the wisdom of previous generations. Neoliberalism is broadly the theory that society should be governed by the market rather than by values, or even that economic goals are all that matter. It is thus the political embodiment of unfettered capitalism unconstrained by values of any kind.

Political opponents of neoliberalism currently lack a convincing answer to it because such an answer has to attack the basic premise that economics is the only proper foundation of public policy. But that requires a strong, widely accepted foundation of some other kind. Our pluralist, relativist society generally lacks such a thing, a familiar theme of course on these pages. What we lack in particular is any shared sense that there are ethical and social values which take priority over market forces.

Even old political standards like fairness, justice or equality, while they may have emotional resonance, lack intellectual traction because they only work if they are embedded in precisely the kind of shared value system we lack. As things stand they are often empty terms, bandied like playground slogans. We may have a sense that certain things are unfair, for example, but it is a shifting sense. Is it fair that some people are more talented than others, or have the ability to apply themselves and so become more successful? Surely such random talent is not fair, but crucially it is not an unfairness to which we generally object – think of sports stars for example.

So we can tolerate some kinds of unfairness but not others and we need a further test of when “unfairness” is unacceptable – which just shows that unfairness as such is not the problem. We need a test for something like “morally unfair” but we don’t have one because we don’t agree about morality, ethics, values or whatever you want to call it. It is thus a shared ethical framework we lack, because we have come to think of ethics as a matter of personal opinion, culture or taste.

So the really desperate problem today for parties of the left, as for those on the right who dislike neoliberalism, is that there is no coherent value system shared by enough of us to which they can appeal to show why certain political approaches are unacceptable. The central issue is about values or ethics but our values are fragmented, dispersed. This is one reason why the left has increasingly become a coalition of single cause pressure groups, many based on identity.

If we have values at all, they must be based on what is most important to us and what, if we are behaving in a thoughtful way, we structure our behaviour and indeed our whole lives around. So to share individual values requires that we agree on what is indeed most important to us. It makes sense that if a collection of individuals – a society – agreed in this way they would want their priority expressed in the way their society was organised.

What doesn’t make sense is that there might be new “values” which only emerge at the aggregate, social level, as traditional political values tend to do. If this were the case there would be a potential conflict, in fact an impossible dilemma, because individual and political values might point in different directions. If every individual’s values are based on what is central or most important in that person’s life, how could anyone agree to put those values aside for a collective goal?

The only way to resolve this dilemma is to base political values, such as they are, on the values of individuals. They cannot be based on economic theories, on the distribution of income and wealth,
on class, still less on theories of historical destiny, but on the values by which individuals live. The issue then becomes how a modern society of many cultures, views, beliefs and interests can find sufficient common ground to share such values.

This is not comfortable news for the left. It implies that a central question of politics needs to be the search for a basis on which we can share values – a search which neoliberals may be expected to disrupt and pour scorn upon. It is not just a matter of a new political slogan but a foundation on which individuals might anchor their own lives, so that politics could become an expression of people’s aspirations rather than a dull spectator sport.

Science and values

Although religion is still a powerful force in our world secularism has never been stronger. In recent years we have even seen a tide of quite strident anti-religious secularism, not content merely to abandon faith but to blame it for all the wrongs of the world. This is surely too much. While some authoritarian religion can lead to great harm – as ISIS for example shows us – much religion sets out to do good and often achieves it in places where no one else is interested in going.

But in any case, secularism has yet to match religion in the crucial area of values. Values are the answer we give to the question of how we should live and direct our lives and actions. They matter because they give meaning and direction to our lives and societies. We seem to need such meaning and direction, perhaps because we are uniquely story-driven creatures – we need narratives, we like things to make sense. Cruder forms of religion may view values as divine laws, but convincing arguments against that view have been known since before Plato. Better religious narratives regard some transcendent goal or mission as being at the heart of who we are and how we should live. Secularism has been curiously unable to supply a rival heart.

In part this is because modern attacks on religion tend to be inspired by science, or more exactly by scientism, that fascination with science which assumes that since it is the best way we have of finding out about the world there can be no questions other than scientific ones. One way of looking at scientism is that it elevates the objective observer to such a point that subjective experience is ignored. But the subjective matters, it is where we live, how we experience our lives.

“How should I live my life?” is a reasonable question, which certainly can and should be informed by whatever facts are available, but is not itself a question of fact. It is the central question of values and moreover for each of us it is actually more important than any question of fact. Science, let alone scientism, cannot answer it.

So it is futile to try and base values somehow on neurology or evolutionary biology, for example. Yet if we are to live secular lives we need to think about how to discover or construct an answer to that question about how to live without falling back on faith. One type of answer is provided by secular political ideology. The last century was torn apart by such ideologies and today many countries including our own are in the grip of neoliberalism, the ideology of the markets as sovereign and money as merit. But beyond that, among the majority who don’t think about ideology consumerism has replaced values – how we live has become a matter of what we own and what we consume. This produces a restless, shifting, unsatisfiable form of life, because the essence of consumerism is that it must keep generating new wants to drive new consumption. Consumerism dangles the very next purchase as the key to contentment, but consumers who ever achieved contentment would bring the system to a shuddering halt.

So where else can secular society turn for values? Back to the beginning, to the question faith used to answer so well when we all believed. What do we put at the heart of our lives? It has to be something consistent with who and what we are, so immortality for example is not on the table! It has to be something which can stand alone, so wealth for example is not the answer, for only a fool would accept being rich and miserable. It should ideally be something constant, something which does not change throughout the course and the vicissitudes of life and it should ideally be something common to all. So the field narrows quickly to one answer – our most central aim is to live happily.

Although this is a very old answer, it has often been rubbished by moral philosophers (even as eminent as Kant) because happiness is so difficult an idea to pin down. What makes one person happy revolts another, it is rightly said. But this criticism repeats the mistake of scientism, confusing the objective with the subjective. If we regard living happily as a matter of the way in which we deal with both the problems and the pleasures of life, it becomes primarily a matter of how we approach and to an extent manage our own inner lives. This is no less than an active approach to subjectivity. That change in perspective brings happiness back into the frame as the obvious central objective of human lives freed from dependence on the supernatural.

There is much more to the argument, but happiness in this sense can provide the foundation of robust individual and political values which are human both in the sense that they do not rely on anything outside humanity and in the sense that they can be understood and adopted by any human being.

UN Development Goals

The UN has recently adopted new development goals which admirably aspire to commit governments to the elimination of poverty, among other things. It may be slightly unfair to say this, but new goals were necessary because the old millennium (Millennium! Old!) goals had failed to produce the results they were meant to produce – there was some progress on some goals, just not enough on enough.

Sadly, the new goals are unlikely to be more successful. In the first place, there are seventeen of them, each divided into many sub goals, more than 150 in all. (I haven’t actually counted!) Any manager will tell you that 150 goals is too many. It is a sufficient number for every country in the UN to claim that it has achieved its own impact on the final document, which is perhaps the hallmark of such diplomatic efforts. But the targets are too diffuse to create real pressure, real focus. Every country will be able to say in the end “Well, we made progress on some goals but of course not all were possible.”

Secondly, as many have pointed out, there are likely to be many tensions between so many different goals but there is a particularly stark contradiction between development goals which hold out growth as the answer to poverty and environmental goals contained (again presumably for diplomatic reasons) in the same document which require slower growth. Unless very different patterns of growth can be found, more growth is likely to mean more environmental impact. Something will have to give and in the meantime existing levels of environmental impact from growth are likely to increase poverty in many parts of the world.

Third, there is a danger that well-meaning people will mistake this declaration for a statement of world values, as happened with the declaration on human rights. These are diplomatically negotiated aspirations, not values. They may be very useful as part of the process of mobilising opinion in favour of desirable goals or even in encouraging people to think about values. Equally, they will almost certainly be appropriated at some stage by corporations who will argue that advancing their corporate interests will further a development goal and is therefore the moral duty of governments.

It is possible that at a practical level some clearly stated and agreed goals could act as a focus of collective action which embodied shared values. But such high level goals are not values. What would happen, for example, if by some miracle they were all achieved – we would presumably set new goals but would that mean new values? That would be a very strange result.

Collective goals should spring from our values, not the other way around. More importantly, these goals tell us nothing, or very little, about how to live our individual lives. Do we for example subjugate our personal goals and aspirations to the UN development goals? That would lead to a sort of developmental totalitarianism. On the contrary, we can only test the relevance and significance of these goals against values we already have. Is sub-goal no. 47 for example (whatever that is) a goal worthy of our wholehearted effort and support? We do not know unless we already have a value framework we can apply. Again, values must lie at the heart of everything we do and thus the search for shared values is no ivory tower game but an essential, civilisation defining activity.


What can be said about the atrocity in Paris? No words are enough. But this is what happens every day to the ordinary people of Syria, Moslems, Christians and everything else. Every single day, and with the knowledge that tomorrow will be the same. And then we blame them for trying to escape or bring their children to safety?
Please don’t react then by blaming immigration from the war zone for putting us in danger. Yes, our compassion will be exploited by the violent deluded few and we should do what we can to stop them, but not by abandoning compassion or embracing hatred as they have done.
Those who flee are just as much victims as those who have died. Fight the madness, search for every possible means to end the violence, impossible though that seems, but stand beside the victims.

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.