The Truth About Inequality & Why We Need to Put Up a Tougher Fight

Oxfam recently published its inequality report which stresses that you shouldn’t have to be rich to have rights.

5 min read
Oxfam recently published its inequality report which stresses that you shouldn’t have to be rich to have rights.

I think, for most people, freedom is primarily associated with political freedoms; of free speech, freedom of association, democracy.

For many on the right, freedom has also been associated with the ‘free’ market. The capture of the word freedom by those who support neoliberal economics has been particularly successful.

In their seminal books, The Road to Serfdom and Capitalism and Freedom Hayek and Friedman consistently link state regulation and control of markets to a broader erosion of freedom. They were particularly successful because of the Cold War, which enabled them to conflate their extreme brand of economics with the civil and political rights championed by the West, and any state intervention with Communism. This is of course, not true at all.


Dangerous Mix of Neo-Liberal Economics & Authoritarianism

There is no necessary positive link between neo-liberal market ‘freedoms’ and civil and political rights. A coal-fired power station ‘liberated’ from the red tape of ‘burdensome’ environmental regulations, is in no way a guarantee of the right to protest, the right to free speech, or the right to freedom of assembly.

If anything, beyond the pithy prose of Hayek and Friedman, the neo-liberal world has shown consistently that in defence of the economic ‘freedoms’ of corporations and the wealthy, the suppression of free speech and civil and political rights is very often tolerated.

This is a key difference I think between neo-liberalism and the classical liberalism of thinkers like Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill. It is not that the advocates of neo-liberalism support authoritarianism.

But when a commitment to neo-liberal economics comes together with authoritarianism and a suppression of civil and political rights, they have repeatedly shown they are more than happy to hold their nose. This was true for Friedman in his support of Pinochet, and this recent tweet from The Economist shows that not much has changed.

Oxfam recently published its inequality report which stresses that you shouldn’t have to be rich to have rights.

The Right to have Equal Access to Basics

In our annual Davos paper, we try and make a small contribution to reclaiming the word freedom. The focus of our paper is on the power of public services and social protection to reduce the gap between rich and poor. Of health and education to fight inequality. And of the need to tax wealth more fairly to pay for this.

Amartya Sen, in his famous book from twenty years ago, Development is Freedom points out that despite huge wealth, the world denies even the most basic freedoms to most humanity. Whilst nominally free, most of humanity remains effectively imprisoned by poverty, illness and ignorance. To be truly free, you need to not be worried about whether you or your family will have enough to eat today.

You need to know that if you get sick, you will be able to get medicines and healthcare, without going bankrupt. You need have access to education to have the ability to understand the world, to critically engage with it and to gain knowledge. These fundamental freedoms are the birth right of all, and there is more than enough money in the world to ensure that everyone has them.

Yet in so many countries it is your bank balance that dictates whether you will have good healthcare, enough food or a good education.


Importance of Education & Freedom From Fear

My son Ernest recently learned to read, and I can see first-hand the true liberation that it is bringing – he is hoovering up books, hungry for knowledge. It reminds me of when I worked on adult literacy programmes in Malawi – talking to women about how, before they learned to read, they felt like they were living at the “bottom of a dark cooking pot”, unable to understand the world around them.

My stepfather recently beat cancer, thanks to the world class free healthcare of the National Health Service. Nye Bevan, the architect of the NHS wrote a great book about this which is called ‘In Place of Fear’. It is this freedom from fear – the fear of the costs of sickness, of unemployment that is core to the vision of a welfare state put forward by such figures as Bevan and FDR.

These are true freedoms, and to achieve them the richest corporations and individuals will have to become a little less free. Less free to avoid tax. Less free to pay poverty wages. Less free to pollute and less free to purchase politics. This seems a small price to pay.


The Power of People

25-31 January 2019 was celebrated as the global week of action against inequality, organised by activists across the world as part of the Fight Inequality Alliance. It is timed to coincide with Davos, to demonstrate that the answers to the inequality crisis come not from elites on a mountain top but from ordinary citizens.

In 2018, we held a festival in Dandora, one of the slums in Nairobi, and this year we are doing it again, but it will be bigger and better. Not least there will be a children’s tent and I am volunteering to police the bouncy castles!

We will hear from musicians, artists and activists. There will be educational tents and information sharing about a range of issues from gender-based violence to women’s land rights.

Excitingly this year, inspired by Kenya, similar events are taking place in slums all over the world – in India, in the Philippines, in Mexico, and we expect campaign actions in forty countries. In London are gathering near the Grenfell Tower to hear from artists and activists on the growing inequality in the UK, and what can be done to fight it. You can follow it all on Twitter if you follow #fightinequality.

It is so inspiring to see this all happening, the start of a truly global social movement to fight back against inequality. It is sorely needed. Killer facts, whilst important to shifting the way people think about things, are ultimately no substitute for people’s power.

Of Lawless Lands & Brave Activists

Kenya is seemingly full of amazing activists, dedicating their time and energy to fighting injustice and inequality, and I have been so privileged to work with many of them in the last year as part of the ‘Fight Inequality Alliance Kenya’ programme.

One of them is Beth, featured in this video, whose husband was murdered by the police. The killing of young people by police in slums like Dandora is rife in Kenya. The police involved even have their own Facebook pages to ‘celebrate’ those they have killed. No trial, no access to justice. Complete impunity.

Beth is one of the brave ones willing to fight back against this. It is people like Beth, joining together across the world, that will bring an end to the inequality crisis.

(Max Lawson is the Head of Inequality Policy at Oxfam International and is based in Nairobi. He can be reached at @maxlawsontin on Twitter. This is a personal blog and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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