The Long Read

Kieran Marray, OULC member, accuses the Left of failing to act on its moral intuitions by not advocating for redistribution of wealth and resources on a global level.  

Imagine that you are walking through University Parks, this copy of Look Left in your hands. It is a crisp, clear morning. The chill bites your nose and fingers. You think that’s maybe why it is deserted. Not even a jogger disturbs the peace. You get to where the river winds past the path, glittering in the early morning sun. Then suddenly, the silence is broken by the sound of splashing. You notice a small child, desperately trying to keep itself afloat. The water is deep and freezing cold. The child will surely drown if you don’t do something! You aren’t an amazing swimmer, but you know that you could jump in and save it. The problem is that you have just been given a fancy new watch for your birthday, and you don’t have time to take it off. It would be ruined. What do you do?

I think that every member of this club would jump in and save the child. It seems to be a common intuition that this is the right act to do. Yet every single day, we let the child die. Not only that, but we support a party which, if it were to come to power, would consciously let this happen thousands upon thousands of times. We are not doing what is morally right.

The thesis that I shall now try to defend is that if you are on the left, then you are committed to thinking that it is right to ‘save the child’ in all relevantly similar cases. This provides grounds for how we and our party should act, not just in our personal lives but in the policies that we put forward and implement. Acting on this thesis would entail a Copernican Revolution, a radical redistribution of wealth and resources from the global North to the global South. It would also mean a brighter future, one where we crush the evils of hunger, poverty, and disease once and for all. I shall present this case by looking at the morality that might be used to ground leftist thought. Firstly, I shall consider a brief overview of the relevant parallels in the world today to the analogy of saving the child, and thereafter what kind of personal actions and policies would entail ‘saving the child.’ Then, I shall look at what I see as the three most plausible criteria of what is morally right that are consistent with left-wing ideas: egalitarianism, utilitarianism, and that of Marxist ethics. Other theories don’t appear plausible as theories that might underpin the thought of those on the left; I am happy to defend this but shall not do so here. I shall show that, on all of the plausible theories, a radical global redistribution is morally right, and that therefore, those on the left should support it.

What kind of situations are like saving the child? According to the World Bank, more than 750 million people live in extreme poverty (classified as being on under $1.90 a day), the majority of these in Sub-Saharan Africa. Meanwhile, the United Nations World Food Programme estimates that around 3.1 million children die each year due to a lack of adequate nutrition. Many of these children suffer from painful intestinal worms, which sap their concentration at school and stunt their development for life. The World Health Organisation calculates that in 2015, 438 000 people died of malaria. It would cost us relatively little in terms of our own resources to prevent all this suffering. According to the charity evaluator GiveWell, the NGO Deworm the World Initiative can deworm a child for a year for under a dollar, including all distribution and staff fees. Giving someone a malaria net by donating to the Against Malaria Foundation costs under two dollars, and it is estimated that someone’s life is saved for roughly every $3000 worth of donations. This is less than some, albeit very fancy, watches. Just because these people are far away, it does not make it hard to help them if it is done well. It takes less effort than saving the drowning child. You don’t need to be able to swim, you just need internet access. Yet when the majority of people think about how to spend their own money, they do not think of sending it overseas to those in need. When the Labour Party formulates policy, it thinks primarily of increasing spending within the UK. In the 2017 manifesto, which is over 120 pages long, only a single page talks about global poverty and inequality. They are willing to give a measly 0.7% of GDP to international aid, and suggest keeping the remaining 99.3% for ourselves. We, and our party, are like the person who walks past the child struggling in the river for want of a watch. People suffer and die, gross inequalities persist, and we carry on looking the other way. I think we need to be radical and try to change this state of affairs.

On an individual level, this radicalism means donating as much as one can afford to effective charities over time. On a governmental level, meanwhile, it means spending much more of Britain’s GDP on effective overseas aid, and relatedly, empirically testing what exact proportion would squeeze the greatest benefit out of every pound. 20% of GDP looks like a good place to start. This expenditure could be financed with redistributive taxation, expropriating the property and wealth of the rich to save lives. This might seem a very unrealistic proposition. Yet as the philosopher Peter Railton notes, the only reason why it appears unrealistic is that we live in a system which makes it easier not to care, and to let people suffer and die. We and our party need to break this system.

If you are on the left, it seems impossible to escape the fact that this would be the morally right thing to do. All the plausible moral groundings for leftist thought, which I give a quick exposition of below, support it.

The first moral theory is an egalitarian one. Egalitarians might be defined in simple terms as those who believe in the principle of equality, which states that, as the late Oxford philosopher Derek Parfit puts it, “it is in itself bad if some people are worse off than others.” This needs to be combined with some way of ranking different types of inequality as worse or better with actions that reduces inequality by a greater extent than the alternative being better. This seems to explain the pull of policies such as progressive taxation or providing housing for the homeless. Cases where some people are living in luxury while others are living in squalor often provoke the feeling that they are just wrong. A leftist worldview could be based upon this strong feeling of revulsion, and of the justice of making people more equal to each other. I’m sure that you can see where this is going. The greatest inequalities in our world are not between people within developed countries, but between the super-rich and the global poor. As Oxfam reports, currently eight people own as much wealth as the 3.6 billion who make up the poorest half of the world. But there are also massive inequalities between those who live normal lives in the ‘Western’ world and the global poor; someone with an after tax income of £20 000 in the UK, below our median income, has in material terms 19 times the average global income, and is within the top 5% of global incomes in such terms. Hence, actions and policies which close these massive inequalities must be morally right.

The second is a utilitarian theory. Utilitarians believe that the rightness of acts are determined by their consequences, and that good consequences are those which increase human welfare (normally defined in hedonist terms, i.e. as pleasure and the absence of pain). This seems to explain a similar set of leftist intuitions: the feeling that one should alleviate the suffering of the worst off in society and create a future in which the majority of people have a better life than they do now. It also can explain the sense of injustice that many on the left feel when they see that a few have huge amounts of resources, which could help create a better life for millions of others. Again, it seems fairly obvious why global redistribution is morally right on this theory. By redistributing personal and national income in an effective way to those who are the worst off, we could prevent the horrific and painful suffering of millions of people. It appears likely that this would come at little expense to ourselves as well. Hence, it is certainly the right thing to do if you find utilitarian theory the most convincing.

The third theory is a Marxist conception of the rightness of acts. This is certainly consistent with leftist views as the modern left is rooted in Marxism to a large extent. Such a Marxist conception is hard to pin down, but a necessary condition of the rightness of acts would surely be to empower the working classes. This is because the endpoint of a Marxist conception of history is the overthrow of the bourgeois class by the working classes through revolution and the subsequent establishment of a classless society. So the rightness of an action is measured by the extent to which it empowers the working classes, improves their material condition, and liberate them from oppression. Global redistribution would certainly help achieve these goals by freeing the global poor from the burdens of poverty and disease, thereby empowering them to become more active in the public sphere. So it also seems to be morally right act for those who hold a Marxist conception of ethics.

How, therefore, can someone on the left fail to support global redistribution without contravening their own left-wing ideas about what is morally right? To consistently subscribe to any of the three moral theories outlined above, every left-winger must accept globally redistributive policies on a personal and governmental level. The process of changing government policy will of course be complex, involving gradual introduction so that any government willing to implement such radical change stands a chance of being elected. I am not trying to ignore that nuance. However, there seems to be no way in which someone on the left could not think it right to, and hence should not try to bring about global redistribution in the most effective way possible. In the same way that we would save the child, we need to do this.

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