Goal number one of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals is to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger. That reducing extreme wealth is left out of this aim, set for the year 2015, makes me wonder whether it was omitted because the officials understand that closing the gaping disparity between rich and poor must curb the extremities from both sides, or rather because they haven’t yet arrived at this understanding.
One thing that the current global economic crisis has led me to suspect is that Western capitalistic philosophy believes wealth doesn’t have to taken from some to be distributed, as it can simply be created. However, as the bottom drops from beneath the trillions of dollars of virtual money that was generated by the grown-up equivalent of “let’s pretend” called a “bubble”, many would probably question this belief, if only they could understand how such a complex system of gambling based on mathematical equations actually worked and how it was allowed to wreak such havoc on the entire world. A very limited number of experts can actually understand and perform these equations, and only the elite have access to these experts. This is a glaring example of institutionalized inequality.
In light of the above, I want to examine how the rich could be persuaded to unclench their fists from the wealth they have, with the assumption that then the segment of the world’s population living on less than a dollar a day may enjoy the right to a dignified livelihood. There are so many people in the world, they might say, if I give in to this I won’t have anything left for myself to enjoy the lifestyle that I want and am entitled to. I’m reminded of recent news stories related to salary caps which have been imposed on executives at companies receiving federal aid from the U.S. government to keep from collapsing during the credit crunch. An article calculated the expenses that such an executive would incur just to maintain the expected public image associated with such a status, and it concluded that the salary cap would in fact not cover “basic” expenses such as mortgage payments on a New York flat and weekend home, child’s private school tuition, car and driver, vacations, etc. The cap is US$500,000.
Thus, we see that the current economic system is destabilizing on both ends of the spectrum. If there are people in the world whose lives would be disrupted if their income were reduced to half-a-million dollars, then they are not sitting atop financial security any more than the mining workers in the Democratic Republic of Congo after the demand for ore, cobalt and copper completely dried up. While the latter might feel their only recourse is to riot to make their voices heard, the former will use the power of their political and interest group connections to lobby to manipulate the system to keep the status quo. Both scenarios damage the human body as a whole.
Perhaps, then, the rich could come to recognize the merits of a world order based on moderation, if they were convinced that their personal wellbeing is intimately tied to the flourishing of the whole world’s population. I would ask them to imagine a wellbeing that ensures no one would be so desperate for money as to rob them, kidnap their children, destroy their property or in any way try to ruin the lives they are able to build for themselves within a just system. Surely this is one example—albeit self-interested, but still important—of a social milieu that returns far greater benefits in terms of personal freedom than any sacrifice required, and a good start at persuading the wealthiest to accept a set of laws and collective interests that would require them to relinquish the personal liberty that allowed them to accrue such extreme riches at the cost of other’s extreme poverty.