There is another side to this issue of moral obligations that I did not bring up in my previous entry. It’s the idea of impossibility. In essence, it’s fairly straight-forward that you cannot be obligated to do something that is impossible for you to do. For instance, I cannot be morally obligated to go back in time and save John F. Kennedy from being shot. If, at some point, we do create a time machine, those obligations could change, but as it stands right now, I cannot be required to do something that is impossible for me to do.
This has, strangely enough, gotten me into the domain of economic systems. It began when I asked the question, “Is poverty simply a fact of life?” It seems as though if it is impossible to change it, we cannot be morally obligated to change it. Now first off, you might say that you can definitely change the well-being of individuals, and that’s certainly true. But I’m trying to think big picture here, and ask if it is possible to end poverty altogether. And as depressing as it is, I don’t know that it is.
The system that much of the world uses today is capitalism. To summarize briefly, it’s a self-adjusting economic structure that relies on market forces and the law of supply and demand to dictate the price of goods and the rate of wages in a given economy. It’s definitely a well-tuned machine (although as seen with the Great Depression and the current economic crisis, things certainly can go wrong), and it has helped to lead the Western world into an era of prosperity and technological advancement that might not have been possible under any other system. However, as I got to thinking about this, I realized that the system of capitalism relies on a large base of unemployed and/or poor people. Why is this? Well, first of all, unemployment is necessary in order to keep wage rates down – people will be content to work at a lower rate if they see that others around them aren’t working at all. Similarly, poverty is used as a “disposable” task force that can be exploited for cheap labour. As seen with issues of child labour, sweatshops, etc., when people are destitute, even being paid pennies an hour in miserable conditions is better than nothing. Thus, it seems that the capitalist system relies on both of these groups of people in order to provide the wealthy with their wealth. It’s much like a huge pyramid scheme, to be honest.
Now, at this point, you might be asking whether I’ve gone communist. And the answer is no. I think communism has its own problems, one of which is an inherent inefficiency brought about by a centralized planning structure (the free market is able to adjust itself to changing demands at a much quicker rate than a system of government bureaucrats). Another is that I think it simply misunderstands human nature – without competition, the drive to innovate and work hard is much reduced. So I don’t think communism, or its relative socialism, offers a much better solution. Nevertheless, I think communist thinkers such as Marx and Engels had some pretty good criticisms about the capitalist economic structure. But let’s just deal with capitalism for now, and see if it can be “fixed”, and then if not, we can try and see if there’s any other system that might do better.
The problem that I see is that the capitalist structure is too good at readjusting itself. I tried to come up with different scenarios that might try to redistribute wealth and opportunity more equally, and in every case it seemed that it was able to reassert itself. But let me back up a bit. Picture in your mind a pyramid shape. Divide it into three sections – the tip at the top is the “upper class”, then below it is the “middle class”, and below that is the “lower class”. This may not be exactly the right ratio between the three, but I think it’s a good enough approximation. In North America, the rich are few, and we have a large middle class, but if you extend it into a global economy, I think it’s easy to see that the poor vastly outnumber the other two classes. Anyway, we can also use a pyramid shape to symbolize the distribution of resources – only this time, it is inverted. The rich have the majority of the resources, and the lower class the least. This, of course, right off the bat does not seem fair, since one would imagine that the largest class should have the largest amount of resources. But here we go. My strategies attempted to find a way to distribute the resources more equally, and at the same time, distribute people more equally amongst the other classes. (This can be done at the same time, of course, because the classes are largely based on how much money they have – so a poor person who gets a large sum of money suddenly moves up in the class structure. As you even out the resources, you automatically even out the classes.)
Like I mentioned, however, it seems that the structure is very good at reasserting itself. I’ll give you a couple examples of what I tried. First off, an easy one – taxing the rich and giving to the poor. This seems fairly straightforward, except that as the lower class gets more money, they are now able to buy more goods. This increases employment (more demand for goods leads to greater production), but also increases the price of goods (because of greater demand for goods). Of course, the upper class tends to dominate the ownership of business, so as the lower class spends their money, the profit goes right back into the pockets of the rich. In simpler terms, all that’s occurred is that the rich have lent money to the poor – at interest. Thus, the pyramid structure reasserts itself.
Let’s take another example. I thought that perhaps some method of reducing the population of the poor might work. (Please note that since I’m trying to work out issues of morality, I’m not advocating any sort of “euthanizing the poor” program. Providing easier access to condoms and education on their proper use might do the trick – considering that the wealthy typically already have lower birth rates, this type of program would mostly target the lower class. But for my purposes, the actual method is irrelevant.) This way, the base of the pyramid would shrink, providing for a more uniform distribution of resources. Unfortunately, this idea does not work either. With fewer people to produce goods cheaply, the price of goods would increase. As well, without a base of unemployed people, the bargaining power of labourers would decrease – employers could pay less for the same amount of work. These two effects working in tandem essentially just push the middle class downward, creating a new base of low-income workers and unemployed people. Again, the pyramid structure reasserts itself.
Perhaps these models are a bit simplistic, and perhaps I’m forgetting some crucial variable that would lead to a more equitable distribution of resources and opportunities. But somehow I don’t think so. It seems as though the self-correcting nature of the capitalist system ensures that the pyramid structure stays in place. There may be methods of at least producing a narrower pyramid, but it seems that under a capitalist economy, the poor are an inevitable fact of life.
So let’s get back to the issue of moral obligations. Can a person be morally obligated to help the poor when the issue cannot be resolved? Sure, I suppose he could assist an individual or two – but what seems to be the case is that helping one person out of poverty will simply end up pushing another person into it. So it seems that even in the individual case, the moral action may be counteracted by a corresponding immoral action. It seems our efforts get us nowhere. Within the existing structure, I am not sure that we can have a moral obligation to help others.
I should point out that this includes both “handouts” as well as attempts at producing self-sufficiency. The fact of limited resources, limited job availability, and market forces pretty much rule out both options. We can give a poor person a job, but there are really only so many jobs to be completed. And if we were to give everyone even menial make-work jobs, market forces would push wages so far down that it would make no difference (or in countries where minimum wage laws are in effect, it would end up pushing companies out of business). Certainly there is some room for innovation – maybe we could help the lower class to come up with novel ideas for businesses that would increase their ability to provide for themselves. Unfortunately, market forces also tend to rule this out as well. Businesses rise and fall, but the one overriding factor in a capitalist economy is a push toward greater efficiency. Businesses always try to do more with less, and if they do not do it successfully, they go out of business. Allowing the poor to create their own businesses might work for some, but these only tend to replace other businesses that are not producing goods as efficiently.
I know that saying all this is quite depressing. My last post was all uplifting and inspiring, and this is just the opposite. If anyone has any ideas of where I might have gone wrong with this analysis, I’d be glad to hear about it. But if I’m right, then it essentially erases any obligations we might have in a capitalist society. But what about in other types of societies?
There are essentially two options here. Either there is an economic structure that allows for resources to be distributed more equitably than capitalism, or there is not. These could include ideas that people have already come up with, or it may be a structure that no one has ever even thought of before. But those are our two options. If there is no better system, then our obligations can only lie in trying to come up with the formulation of the capitalist system that best distributes things equitably. It won’t be perfect, but it will have to do. We can try to narrow the pyramid as much as possible, but then stop fighting the inevitable and simply let things be what they are (although I suppose that charities, as much as they may not actually be effective in the long run, are at least providing jobs for people…). If, however, there is a system that is better than capitalism, then I think that our moral obligations lie in finding it, researching it, and implementing it. Systemic change may be difficult, but it’s been done before, and it can be done again. If there truly is a better system, it must be done. To do otherwise would be immoral; we would simply be perpetuating an inferior system that leaves the poor worse off than they could be.
So, after thinking about economics and capitalism and such, that is my conclusion. Our moral obligation lies in investigating economic systems that may work better than capitalism. It’s really not much of an answer, I know. It seems pretty strange, actually. But if improvements are possible, then we should make them. Perhaps this is more of a societal obligation than a personal one, but at any rate, it’s an important goal that should merit greater discussion.
Anyway, for now, it’s time for me to stop thinking about economic systems. It’s making my head hurt.