All social and economic problems caused by an unfair distribution of wealth

February 1, 2003

"The world holds enough to satisfy everyone's need," Mahatma Gandhi once observed, "but not everyone's greed." In these few words he identified the main cause of most of the world's social and economic problems--and also pointed to their obvious solution.

Poverty, hunger, homelessness, illiteracy, preventable disease, polluted air and water, and most of the other ills that beset humanity have the same root cause: the inequitable distribution of the planet's wealth and resources.

People who have an adequate income, no matter where they may live, are well-fed, well-housed, well-educated. They don't have to visit food banks or sleep under bridges. This simple truth underscores the equally obvious fact that the answer to most human misery and injustice is a fair allocation of the world's wealth.

Unfortunately, the economic system that now predominates in most parts of the world--unfettered global capitalism--promotes, defends, and even extols an obscenely unequal distribution of wealth. Its three basic principles are greed, individualism, and competition--all of which militate against economic and social justice.

So we have a system in which 400 billionaires own more wealth than the poorest two-and-a-half billion people. And the proponents of this grossly inequitable system see nothing wrong with it. They would presumably not object if eventually 600 billionaires owned more wealth than 90% of the rest of humankind. That's what a free market is all about, they would remind us. In a system based on the survival of the fittest, the financially unfit don't survive--and don't deserve to.

Of course, this application of the law of the jungle to human society is not new. It reigned supreme in the 1800s when the "robber barons" of business were free to exploit the world's resources and workers for their own enrichment. Poverty and hunger were rampant then, too. But the first three-quarters of the 20th century saw the emergence of governments and unions committed to alleviating human misery. Gradually, through most of the century, the lives of most people (at least in the industrialized nations) were improved by the introduction of a wide range of social programs--programs that were largely funded through progressive legislation, a fair tax system, and strong, government-supported unions.

It seemed for a while, especially in the first three decades after World War II, that corporate leaders and investors were resigned to these constraints on their greed. But in fact they always resented the "social contract" that had been imposed on them, and were determined to break loose from it whenever they could. That opportunity came in the mid-1970s with the simultaneous launch of globalized "free trade" and the development of new computer and communications technologies. Corporations were able to escape from national limits and boundaries--and from any compulsion to keep sharing their profits with society's less fortunate.

With their enormous increase in wealth came more power and influence, including the power to buy and control most politicians. Governments were transformed from agents of wealth redistribution into the legislative branches of big business, devoted to helping the rich become richer at the expense of everyone else.

The labour unions, bereft of government backing and facing employers free to relocate to low-wage regions, were seriously weakened. Some still manage to extract more in wages and benefits than a company is willing to concede, but the unions certainly cannot be expected to compensate for the massive withdrawal of governments from their responsibility to redistribute income from the rich to the poor.

The upshot is that the function of helping the poor, the hungry and the homeless is now mainly taking the form of charity. Thousands of charitable organizations beg the corporations and the high- and middle-income earners to share some of their affluence with the needy. Food banks feed hundreds of thousands of the indigent. Appeals for charitable donations clog the mails, the airwaves, and the telephone lines. Motorists encounter children at busy intersections begging for loonies to help save school programs threatened by government cutbacks.

All of the causes championed by charities are worthwhile. All of the hungry and destitute they help are deserving. But their growing dependence on handouts has two major flaws: it perpetuates--perhaps even institutionalizes--a system built on avarice and inequity; and it ensures that the problems of poverty and hunger will persist and even get worse because the proceeds of charity alone will never be enough to eliminate them.

Social activists are striving mightily--and with some success-- against the many manifestations of corporate power and economic injustice: against industrial pollution, free trade, genetically modified foods, pesticides, war-mongering, the AIDS epidemic, the IMF and World Bank, privatization--it's a long list. As we fight these battles, however, it's important always to keep in mind that they are all aspects of the same overarching problem, and that they all have a common solution.

The problem is an unfair distribution of wealth, and the solution--however it may be achieved--is a fair distribution of wealth. Any strategies that ignore that simple truth waste our time, squander our resources, and undermine our efforts to create a better world.

Ed Finn is the editor of The CCPA Monitor, the monthly newsletter of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.