poverty of imagination
On Yahoo! Answers this week, we have Bono asking a Question: What can we do to make poverty history? This must be to mark the anniversary of the Live8 concerts a year ago, the origin of the slogan “Make Poverty History”.
I’ve looked at a few of the “answers” to the question so far, and I’ll refrain from comment on the abysmal spelling and grammar, or on the preponderance of USA-centric answers along the lines of “we need to fix poverty in America first”. It’s not as if Bono et al. were denying there is a poverty problem in the USA, or that Americans should neglect their country in favour of others. He’s simply looking at the big picture: how can we end poverty, worldwide?
Gee, where do I start? Many of the answers can be summarised as “Robin Hood” answers: take from the Rich, and give to the Poor. Well, how do they think rich people will respond? They are good at looking after their money, and have different ways of fighting attempts to take their money away from them.
To avoid theft by individuals, rich people have security, of course: secure homes, bodyguards, and so on. These days most of their assets are not in any fungible form (that can be picked up and carried away), so kidnapping has become a problem, when employees of rich companies are working in poor countries.
Hang on a moment, you might ask: I’m talking about theft, while you’re talking about… taking a person’s assets away without their consent!
When a government takes a chunk of your declared income or assets, for any purpose, it is generally called Taxation, and the people generally consent to this. In a “normal” country like the USA, or Sweden: they still have their share of rich people, don’t they? Yes, because the taxes are acceptable to them too, as part of the deal they implicitly strike with the country’s government, as the cost of living and/or doing business in that country. Tax is only one of the many costs associated with being in a country, but it is the most visible one, and the one most subject to direct interference by a government.
What happens if the costs of being in a country are too high? You try to reduce costs, of course, and if that is not enough, you leave. Leaving is also a cost, but one that rich people are able to bear more easily than others. There are enough tax-free countries in the world to accommodate rich people, and if they were to disappear, there is already a “floating tax shelter” callled The World that allows people to live in international waters, avoiding national tax liability.
How does this relate to the original question? Well, if you’re going to get money out of rich people, how are you going to do it? Robin Hood-style attacks by individuals are not going to work. Raising taxes is not going to work in the long term. By making such utopian statements as “make rich people pay”, then, I have to wonder if the people “answering” the question in that way really understand what they are suggesting. The only government that could even hope to succeed in forcibly fleecing the rich would be a totalitarian World Government. Even then, there will still be an option open to the rich: leave this world for another one.
There is little confidence is the ability of any government to tackle poverty directly, and I suspect Bono knows this. The Make Poverty History website lists goals that I tend to interpret as “getting the Western governments out of the way”, such as forgiving poor countries their World Bank debts, and making trade laws more fair and equitable. Admirable goals that are not offensive to rich people: Bono is one of them, and he knows many more whom he needs to have on his side if there is to be any progress. It’s this that makes the Make Poverty History campaign different, in my opinion, and gives it a better chance of actually making a difference.
If the charity displayed so far by Bill Gates and Warren Buffet is any guide, it’s working: rich people can help if they believe it’s the right thing to do, and because they can exert control over how their money is used. To them – the ones with the money – this is a far better option than any government involvement, a point that the Socialist-leaning respondents to the question seem to have missed.
The role of governments in causing and perpetuating poverty has not gone unnoticed by some respondents – a topic too big to go into here today, but one I may return to. The role of overpopulation has also been mentioned – a perennial concern of mine I need not expand on in detail today. It looks simple to me: if the land can not support the people on it, it is overpopulated, and by artificially supporting the people on it you are in a losing battle with Mother Nature.
In short, there is no point in pouring money in to a country if it does not lead to a better life for those who need it – and that is too common a syndrome today, particularly in Africa, where the benefits of aid are sapped by mismanagement and corruption. Not only is the Gates Foundation more likely to have economic experts who know this influencing policy, it is also (in my opinion) more likely to do a better job of acting on the advice it receives, because it is not spending “someone else’s money” in the way a government is.