Oxfam’s briefing paper on inequality, An economy for the 99%, has attracted some plaudits, but I was disappointed. Its main theme is the startling disparity between the super-rich and the rest of the world. While it’s well researched, it suffers from two key vices. The first is that it doesn’t do enough to explain why this inequality is a bad thing. The second that it gets distracted by other issues – climate change and violence against women. That’s not to say that they’re not important, but so are lots of other things – war, corruption, sanitation, communications – and they’re all irrelevant to this case, too.
What, then, is wrong with extreme inequality? The problem with inequality is not that very rich people don’t pay their taxes, though it would help if they did. It’s that their wealth limits the rights and security of the poor, most obviously in access to land and resources. At the same time, that the maldistribution of resources going to lower paid workers holds back the world economy, ultimately costing everyone. We need to be wary, too, of the assumption that the Rich are exclusively made up of people richer than us. From the point of view of much of the world, those of us living comfortably in Europe are the Rich, and we’re just as much of a problem as Bill Gates and Warren Buffet.