Inequality and the dangerous radicals

As is well-known, critiquing the market can lead to dangerous radicalism, and I’ve recently come across some particularly troubling examples of such radicals.

One proposes that the state should impose on employers an increase in the income of its lowest paid staff. He claims: “It is a serious national evil that any class of subjects should receive less than a living wage.” Without such interference, he claims, “where you have no organisation, no parity of bargaining, the good employer is undercut by the bad, and the bad by the worst — this is not progress, but progressive degeneration.”

Another takes aim the banks, claiming “banking institutions are more dangerous than standing armies. Already they have set up a monied aristocracy that has set the government at defiance. The issuing power of the banks should be taken away from them and restored to the people to whom it belongs.”

And it’s not just banks and sweatshops they are attacking, with rich-bashing reaching its heights with this attack: “The disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and powerful, or to despise, or at least to neglect, the poor, is the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments.”

It may be a relief that these three are old history now – indeed you may have recognised them as, respectively, Winston Churchill, Thomas Jefferson and Adam Smith.

But it’s not all in the distant past. In my own lifetime I find an American President claiming “Trickle-down economics is voodoo economics” and a Pope claiming:

“There are many human needs which find no place on the market. Vast multitudes are still living in conditions of great poverty. There is a risk that a radical capitalistic ideology could spread which refuses even to consider these problems, and which blindly entrusts their solution to the free development of market forces.”

You’ll recognise from their quotes that the dangerously radical President and Pope cited above are, of course, George H W Bush and John Paul II. (I mean, who else could you have been thinking of?)

And now to the present moment, where such radical critiques of the primacy of the market are growing even louder.

“The current level of income inequality,” claims one, “is dampening economic growth, and the last generation’s inequality will extend into the next generation, with diminished social mobility. Rebalancing —along with spending in the areas of education, health care, and infrastructure —could help bring under control an income gap that, at its current level, threatens the stability of an economy still struggling to recover.”

That was – you’ve guessed it, Wall Street ratings agency S&P.

And this rabble rouser goes even further: “Inequality is destabilizing, inequality is responsible for our divisions, and the divisions could get wider,” says Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein.

Strange that such ideas have been endorsed by such apparently establishment thinkers. It’s almost as if the ideas being expressed were perfectly mainstream and sensible! The only question left to ask is what should we do with such dangerous radicals as those cited above? One suggestion, just a suggestion, might be that we heed their warnings.

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Ben Phillips

About Ben Phillips

Ben Phillips, currently based in Nairobi, is co-founder of the #FightInequality alliance, the growing movement for a more equal world. He has lived and worked in four continents and a dozen cities, and led programmes and campaigns teams in Oxfam, ActionAid, Save the Children, the Children's Society, the Global Call to Action Against Poverty and the Global Campaign for Education. He began his development work at the grassroots, as a teacher and ANC activist living in Mamelodi township, South Africa, in 1994, just after the end of apartheid. All his posts are personal reflections. He tweets at @benphillips76