The Robin Hood prin­ci­ple aban­doned

Stabroek News Sunday - - REGIONAL & WORLD NEWS -

It would cost US$700 mil­lion a year to im­mu­nise 250 mil­lion chil­dren in poor coun­tries against po­lio, measles, whoop­ing cough, diph­the­ria, tetanus and tu­ber­cu­lo­sis. This is equal to a few weeks’ beer money for one or two coun­tries in the rich world, but it is a few weeks’ beer money that sim­ply will not be spared.

With this in mind, let us con­sider the at­ti­tude taken in the world to­day to what might con­ve­niently be called the Robin Hood prin­ci­ple.

Not so long ago, the ac­tiv­ity of a Robin Hood – tak­ing from the rich to give to the poor – may have been con­sid­ered glam­orous but it was cer­tainly not le­gal. Nowa­days, this ac­tiv­ity is not con­sid­ered glam­orous at all but it is quite le­gal as all those who pay in­come tax know full well.

The change that took place in a rel­a­tively short time is re­mark­able when you think about it. Tak­ing from the rich to give to the poor is now com­pletely ac­cepted by think­ing men and deeply en­trenched in all de­vel­oped so­ci­eties. This served the great pur­pose of dis­tribut­ing sus­te­nance and ser­vices more in ac­cor­dance with gen­uine need than sim­ply by ref­er­ence to birth or ac­quired wealth or ar­bi­trary power. Across the board in in­di­vid­ual coun­tries, this sav­ing prin­ci­ple holds – to a greater or lesser de­gree, but it holds. Just to give one vivid ex­am­ple; in an ar­ti­cle on post world war eco­nomic his­tory in Europe, in Bri­tain in 1979 the top 10% of the house­holds in the coun­try had their orig­i­nal in­come cut from 14,000 pounds to 9,860 pounds per an­num while the bot­tom 10% had their orig­i­nal in­come in­creased from 10 pounds to 2,120 pounds per an­num – thus nar­row­ing the gap be­tween the top and the bot­tom in that so­ci­ety from more than 400:1 to less than 5:1. This is a good ex­am­ple of the Robin Hood prin­ci­ple in ac­tion. That re-dis­tribu­tive prin­ci­ple is fun­da­men­tal in the or­gan­i­sa­tion of any rea­son­ably civ­i­lized so­ci­ety.

This fun­da­men­tal change in the way so­ci­eties are or­gan­ised has taken root in ev­ery land. Two things are in­evitable, it is said – death, of course, but also taxes. Not even the most self-cen­tred ty­coon or rad­i­cal free mar­ke­teer would dream of putting the clock so far back that no re-dis­tri­bu­tion of wealth at all takes place. Out­right re­sis­tance to the Robin Hood prin­ci­ple would be con­sid­ered grossly re­ac­tionary, ab­surdly self­ish and po­lit­i­cally im­pos­si­ble.

This is quite re­mark­able. What is even more re­mark­able – and a stain on the con­science of the world – is that this same prin­ci­ple, taken for granted within states, is not at all taken for granted be­tween states. In­deed the prin­ci­ple of re-dis­tri­bu­tion of wealth in favour of the poor among na­tions is all too of­ten re­sisted and scorned by the same peo­ple who ac­cept the prin­ci­ple in their own coun­tries. At the purely ra­tio­nal and philo­soph­i­cal lev­els, this is dis­grace­ful. At the prac­ti­cal level, it means con­tin­ued de­pri­va­tion for mil­lions of in­di­vid­ual hu­man be­ings in poor coun­tries. As Mr Tom Clausen, once Pres­i­dent of the World Bank, said long ago: “the Bank is not in the busi­ness of re-dis­tribut­ing wealth from one set of coun­tries to an­other. The Bank is not the Robin Hood of the in­ter­na­tional fi­nan­cial set.”

Well, there you have it, very pre­cisely ex­pressed – a prin­ci­ple which is fun­da­men­tal to re­la­tion­ships within states is re­jected when it serves to im­prove re­la­tion­ships be­tween states. And to­day the signs, even more than be­fore, are ev­ery­where. Amer­ica, for in­stance, has clearly turned toughly against in­ter­na­tional ef­forts to in­crease aid to poor coun­tries and re­duce world­wide poverty through mul­ti­lat­eral con­ces­sion­ary lend­ing. The per­cent­age of rich world in­come given over to as­sist­ing the poor of the world is go­ing down.

With a sense of de­spair one gets the feel­ing that the world is fill­ing up with petty men and that the most con­ta­gious and deadly disease abroad now is sim­ple self­ish­ness. The cur­rent huge-egoed, small-minded “leader of the free world”, in­tent only on mak­ing Amer­ica great again to use his ab­surdly mean-spir­ited phrase, rep­re­sents very well the new prin­ci­ple of self­ish­ness abroad in the world.

If all was even half-way right with the world, the Robin Hood prin­ci­ple would have been ap­plied whole­heart­edly long ago to re­la­tions be­tween na­tions – more debt can­cel­la­tion and tax­ing arms, dirty en­ergy and cap­i­tal ex­changes for the ben­e­fit of the poor – with some chance of par­tial re­al­i­sa­tion of a bet­ter life for the des­per­ately de­prived. Re­gret­tably, how­ever, th­ese are ideas whose time has not come. Per­haps much later this cen­tury such ideas will seem as ob­vi­ous in their ap­pli­ca­tion as na­tional in­come tax now seems. But not yet, sadly not yet.

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