Should the world’s wealth be shared?

2013-02-06 00:00

A UNIVERSITY colleague once said to me: “For capitalists politics is a game, whereas for socialists it is about family.” It is a startling but perceptive statement. It is of course something of a caricature, for nowadays hardly anyone is 100% capitalist, and fairly few are socialist in the full Marxist sense. In other words, the right-wing and the left-wing have both moved a bit towards the centre. But there are still huge differences between them, and the main contrast in my colleague’s statement remains valid.

For people who see society from a primarily capitalist perspective, the main task of politics is to free them to play the game of making money.

Like other games — and they often use analogies from the sporting field — this capitalist game involves fierce competition, which means that there are winners and losers. And the winners enjoy and sometimes boast about their spoils: after all, they would say, with their intelligence and hard work they have deserved them. But a nice thing about this game, they claim, is that it’s good for society as a whole: the wealth generated by the rich trickles down to everyone else.

And what of people with left-wing views? For them, indeed, a society is a family, and people should be aware of one another and assist those who need assistance, as in any good family. The motivation for this collaboration with one’s fellows is simple human decency, ubuntu; certainly it isn’t the profit motive. Similarly the international scene should be seen as a family of nations. Since one knows that many wealthy people and nations are reluctant to share in a family way, it is necessary to introduce laws and regulations to structure societies and indeed ultimately the whole world in such a way that a reasonable degree of sharing takes place.

In my view there are, as in many disputes, important truths and errors on both sides of the equation. Time has surely shown that the socialist attempt to abolish the profit motive has been a mistake and a failure. It has also shown, I believe, that the convenient “trickle-down” theory has not worked in many societies, though it perhaps has in some. The tension between “game” and “family” is what the contemporary world is struggling with — in national elections, in the UN, at Davos, in many places.

In this context I want to say something about very rich individuals, including the CEOs and others who have annoyed many people in Europe and elsewhere by expecting and accepting huge pay increases and bonuses. Such people are certainly winners in the game. But they would be wise to be aware of the family aspect of things too. Their millions are an affront to the poorer members of society, especially in a country like South Africa, where many struggle to feed themselves and their children. An active awareness of this on the part of the very rich is not simply a matter of ubuntu: they need to realise that in the end, outrageous discrepancies in wealth are likely to destabilise any society.

Some of the very rich have moved happily and generously from “game” to “family”. A notable example of this move was Andrew Carnegie, who, having amassed a fortune, gave almost all of it away.

A striking recent example is, of course, Bill Gates. South Africa has its philanthropic rich people too; Siphamandla Zondi discussed them recently in this newspaper. A fair number of rich people make creative donations of one sort or another. But an even greater number seem not to. Such people enjoy a life of wealth and luxury, apparently untroubled by the suffering in the society around them. Let them remember that, though they are winners in the game, they are also a part of the human family.

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