Technological innovation yields prosperity, but alas people do not progress at the same rate. Thus, economic growth also brings inequalities of fortune. Many people would prefer to stop others from striding forward, to ensure that they are not left behind. Obviously nobody likes being left behind. It's difficult to know what to do about progress because, as Angus Deaton puts it, we want to celebrate the ‘great escapes’ made possible by innovation and growth, but we also want to have regard to those who are still lagging behind: the ‘great left behind’.
This is a huge problem because, as shown by the modern FOMO phenomenon [Ed: fear of missing out] and the anxieties of the so-called post-code lottery, we all want to be first in line for new and better things. So that it's fair. If people invent or create new and better things, we want them immediately to share what they have made, equally, with everyone. If people produce wealth, then that's what taxes are for: to make them share with other people, so that it's fair. Foreign aid programmes come in to make sure that the equalisation is spread out globally. This is a natural human desire: nobody wants to feel that other people are better off than them.
A more serious problem, which has implications for national and global security, is that people who have been left behind tend to feel overlooked and this makes them very cross. This in turn causes them to riot, throw missiles at those who are ignoring them, and generally cause inconvenience and harm to others. No ‘left behind’ person likes feeling that those who escaped poverty are happily going about their lives and don’t care about the problems of those who are poorer than them. You have seen what children do when they feel that their parents are not giving them enough attention. Epic tantrums. Now magnify that level of immature anger on a global scale, and you can see why global wealth redistribution through foreign aid is a good idea – it helps to achieve world peace.
There is a huge amount of pressure to equalise things, and this makes it very difficult to take a step back and think of a better solution for these problems. Rather than stopping other people from making progress or stealing their stuff to enforce redistribution, wouldn't it be better to identify what people need to do to achieve progress, and then encourage everyone to do it? This is admittedly quite a complex enterprise, because it requires 'left behind' people to take action to fix their own problems. Encouraging people to fix their own problems is very unfashionable, and possibly even illegal, because it sounds like ‘victim blaming’. This is always going to be a risky proposition in an Age of Competitive Victimhood, but there are huge advantages to be gained.
So, what do people need to do to achieve progress? Two lessons emerge from Deaton's book.
First, avoid the temptation to seek instant solutions. Wealth redistribution is an attractive solution because it’s potentially instantaneous. How long would it take, to loot all the wealth stashed away in tax havens and give it to the poor? In the digital age, a direct bank to bank wealth transfer could be achieved in seconds. Stealing rich people’s stuff and giving it to the poor can be achieved with surprising speed. True progress happens a bit more slowly than that, alas. Here patience is a virtue.
Second, we can think of economic and social wellbeing as something more than how much money people have. There are many better ways to measure wellbeing, other than simply by checking how much people earn. Income is an important component of wellbeing, but as Deaton points out there are other components that are equally, or even more, important: health, education, freedom, autonomy, dignity and the ability to participate in society. Not to mention love and happiness, which account for a surprising component of wellbeing for human creatures.
These things may all be linked to income in the sense that a higher income is associated with a higher ability to improve on other components of wellbeing, but this is not always the case. The direction of causation is not unilinear – do you improve your health as your income grows, or does your income grow because you are in good health? Do you become happier as you grow wealthier, or does happiness enhance your wealth-producing capacity? Moreover, in the age of internet, free wifi in a public library near you, free google, and free youtube clips that will teach you anything you’d like to discover (including how to be hale, healthy and hearty without having to spend any money), the ability to learn and participate in society no longer depends on having any money in the first place. The internet is truly the great equaliser.
Scholar, Writer, Friend