This is an interesting interview with Thomas Pogge (via Norm Geras). He is concerned about global inequality and, while I don’t instinctively agree with his (redistributive) remedies, reading the piece made me aware how much room for agreement there can be across apparent political divides if an instinctive rejection of the other’s view can be suppressed.

Take this, for example:

… dictatorial regimes often manage to keep themselves in power because they are recognized by foreigners as representing the state and its people, and therefore as entitled to sell the country’s natural resources and to borrow money in its people’s name. These privileges conferred by foreigners keep autocrats in power despite the fact that they were not elected and do not rule in the interest of the population.

Or this:

If we offer a prize, so to speak, to anyone who manages to bring a country under his physical control – namely, that they can then sell the country’s resources and borrow in its name – then it’s not surprising that generals or guerrilla movements will want to compete for this prize. But that the prize is there is really not the fault of the insiders. It is the fault of the dominant states and of the system of international law they maintain. They create this disturbing fact that, if only you manage to bring a national territory under your physical control, then you will be recognized worldwide as its legitimate government: entitled to sell its people’s natural resources, to borrow and sign treaties in their name, and entitled also to import the weapons you need to keep yourself in power.

It goes much further than this, as the Arab Spring demonstrated. A policy of maintaining regional ‘stability’ led to large grants of money being made in ‘aid’ to tyrannical regimes. The scare quotes are because I don’t think the Middle East has been particularly stable and I don’t think aid is a very good word for the giving of financial support to tyrants.

And further:

… the massive corruption common in so many developing countries would be quite impossible if Western countries did not provide convenient opportunities to ship ill-gotten funds out of the country. It wouldn’t make much sense for a ruler to store in his basement large quantities of stolen cash in his own country’s currency. A corrupt ruler wants to be able to keep this money safe and to be able to spend it. And for this, he needs to convert it into a Western currency and store it in a bank abroad, where it can also earn investment returns and be bequeathed to his heirs. Global Financial Integrity estimates that less-developed countries have lost at least $342 billion per annum in this way during the 2000 to 2008 period.

The (right) libertarian-inclined writer P J O’Rourke commented that when politicians regulate commerce, the first things that get bought and sold are the politicians. Pogge puts it like this:

Our Supreme Court has even lifted this practice of buying legislation to the level of a constitutional principle by repeatedly protecting corporate spending for and against political candidates, as well as promises and threats of such spending to bribe and blackmail such candidates, by appeal to the free-speech clause of the First Amendment. I think that many citizens understand how our system works, or rather, fails to work, for structural reasons. But who has the capacity and the incentives to bring change? The banks and other corporations love the system because it allows them to buy legislation that serves their own interests even at the expense of the vast majority of citizens. Incumbent politicians love the system because it allows them to raise millions of dollars toward defending their seats. And the politicians, of course, get to appoint the judges who decide whether our constitutional protection of free speech also protects a bank’s purchase of legislation.

There isn’t much room between those two positions. But then Pogge goes on:

… the lack of a realistic political reform path leads to apathy and the kind of mindless frustration that manifests itself in the Tea Party-style hatred of any and all government.

I haven’t studied the Tea Party movement in any detail but from what I’ve seen it is far from mindless. What it is, rather, is unsophisticated, blue collar, not always very well-informed, and sometimes inarticulate. But Pogge falls into the trap, I think, of regarding them, instinctively, as enemies because he imagines them in the trenches on the far side of No Man’s Land. In fact, to some extent – not all – they are his natural allies.

It’s a very long interview and I’ve made this point well enough, I hope, not to need to give further examples. What strikes me above all is that if, instead of fighting on the grounds of principles – egalitarianism, religious conservatism, libertarianism and so on – where we disagree, people tried to find common ground in what they can agree are serious problems and then examine reality to agree what pragmatic steps might alleviate these problems, then we’d be able to advance liberalism far more effectively. Today, there is no effective, organised Liberal movement. Liberal values are scattered across the political landscape and, because they are scattered, they have few means of effective expression. Between the gaps, the illiberal, the corrupt and the self-serving can advance and profit.

We can argue about whether we should redistribute more; I think not because we’ve done lots of that I don’t think it has worked either domestically or internationally. We can argue about whether we should be striving for greater domestic and international economic freedom, free markets, free trade – which I do think have worked in practice. But wouldn’t it be better to be arguing about those thing having solved the problems, identified above, about which there can be widespread liberal consensus?

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  • Cian

    The Tea Party are mostly middle class, and probably tilt towards upper middle. Its a myth, and kind of interesting that it perpetuates in the face of the evidence, that they’re working class. I’m sure that there are working class members, but they’re a minority.

  • Rich Rostrom

    It is easy to blame the “dominant nations of the world” for “recognizing” dictatorships or juntas as the governments of Third World countries.

    But what is the alternative? Who is to decide which governments are legitimate sovereignties and which are illegitimate tyrannies? The U.S. Constitution grants the Federal government authority to “guarantee republican government” to the states. But there is no world government, and no world constitution. Given the ongoing anti-democratic fiasco that is the European Union, what sensible person would want the “transnational progressive elite” to have similar power over the rest of the world?

    Until twenty years ago, the “dominant nations of the world” were divided into two hostile blocs, one of which was itself a confederation of dictatorships, and was willing, nay, eager to recognize and support any regime that would ally with them, however loathsome.

    Since the fall of that bloc, some of the “dominant nations of the world” have occasionally moved to isolate or remove particularly egregious Third World tyrants. This has proved an extremely costly and difficult process – less in the removal than in the establishment of something better, because in many countries, there is majority support for tyranny – by one’s own ethnicity or clan – and only feeble support for the rule of law.

    Nor is it always easy to distinguish corrupt dictators and tyrants ruling by force from corrupt politicians ruling by consent. Hugo Chavez has won multiple elections; so did Ferdinand Marcos. Is the House of Saud tyrannical? The Kingdom is not a democracy, but the king is only first among equals, and there is extensive consultation among the senior princes of the House and leaders of other clans and families.

    The only comprehensive solution I have ever imagined would be an American World Empire. (The U.S. could do it, if we really wanted to. Britain could have done it 100+ years ago, maybe.)