Look, I’m just going to come out and say this. Zoe Williams is a great writer: original, clever and with a fine turn of phrase. Some of my conservative friends regard my admiration for her as bizarre – fetishistic, even. Poor Zoe has been something of a hate-figure on the Right since she defended the egg-throwers at the recent Tory conference. But columnists are not politicians: their job is to strike poses, to épater la bourgeoisie, to say what MPs would secretly like to be able to say.
Which is why I find Zoe’s most recent column, about the “causes” of poverty, so unsettling. You see, I have an uneasy sense that she speaks for a great chunk of opinion in Britain: not just elf-locked Occupy types, but a swathe of mainstream Labour supporters who, in their own eyes, are simply promoting an egalitarian vision that they believe will make most people happier.
Zoe’s argument is that we – national governments, the United Nations, public opinion in general – are wrong to see poverty as the problem and growth as the solution. The real problem, she thinks, is not poverty but wealth:
“How would attitudes look if we had spent the past 30 years asking questions about the rich: their characters, their honesty, their industriousness, their contribution to society? If the problem facing the British economy had been identified as the destabilising effects of extreme wealth, how long would it have been before the wealthy themselves came to be scrutinised?”
Ah: the ultimate First World Problem. Which previous age of human civilisation would not gladly have swapped its troubles for the challenge of being too abundant? How many people in Africa, Asia and Latin America would not do so today?
Wealth, Zoe thinks, is as much a problem for the wealthy themselves as for anyone else. She quotes a U.N. researcher in her support: “For example, Ben, a 45-year-old, very wealthy man: his life revolves around very trivial things. He collects antiques similar to how the squirrel collects nuts.”
Compared to collecting actual nuts as the way to survive winter, something our forebears had to do for thousands of years, I’d say Ben’s is a pretty manageable challenge.
Zoe is by no means the first person to argue that we’re becoming too materialistic, and so losing sight of what really matters. In fact, you won’t find any generation since writing began where that argument isn’t made in pretty much the same terms that Zoe makes it now.
If the argument hasn’t moved on since Seneca, though, the standard of living has. On every metric, from literacy to longevity, from infant mortality to calorie intake, markets have made us wealthier.
It is here that the “GDP isn’t everything” mongers make their error. We can all see the pointlessness of throwing money away on fashion items or ostentatious parties. A dislike of waste is in our genome. But today’s luxuries are tomorrow’s staples: that’s the real miracle of markets.
When Zoe was born in 1973, millions of people in Western countries had no televisions, no indoor plumbing, yet the intellectuals of their day were arguing that they had plenty. Go back a generation further and, even in Britain, plenty of rural homes were not hooked up to the electricity grid, and it took a day simply to do the washing, and another to do the ironing. Go back to the nineteenth century and you are in a world of constant exhaustion, illness and dirt. Yet Victorian moralists breezily asserted that people had never had it so good, and that society had lost its sense of what really mattered.
Why assume that ours is the generation that has finally reached saturation point? Why should we be the ones who get to draw the line?
Ah, you say, but we’re not talking basics like housing and medicine; we’re talking about the unnecessary opulence of the modern consumer. Well, fine, but where do you think the housing and the medicine come from? It’s our “obsession with GDP” that is raising up the destitute. In 1990, 36 percent of the world’s people lived in extreme poverty, defined as an income of less than a dollar a day. Today, that figure has fallen to 9 percent, and the drop has been sharpest in the places which have opened up to global markets, above all in Africa.
In the 1970s, 60 per cent of girls of primary school age were in education. Today, it’s 90 per cent. What made that increase possible? The wealth that comes from open markets.
Which brings us to Zoe’s chief contention:
“Poverty is not a naturally occurring germ or virus; it is anthropogenically created though wealth extraction.”
Again, Zoe is in good company. No less a personage than Nelson Mandela once told a cheering crowd in Trafalgar Square: “Poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings.”
If you think about it, though, this is pretty much the opposite of the truth. Poverty is mankind’s primordial condition. It is wealth that is man-made. Suppose we followed through Zoe’s logic and stopped “extracting” wealth: stopped mining, stopped trading, stopped employing our fellow human beings. Would that seriously make us better off?