It would cost US$700 million a year to immunise 250 million children in poor countries against polio, measles, whooping cough, diphtheria, tetanus and tuberculosis. This is equal to a few weeks’ beer money for one or two countries in the rich world, but it is a few weeks’ beer money that simply will not be spared.
With this in mind, let us consider the attitude taken in the world today to what might conveniently be called the Robin Hood principle.
Not so long ago, the activity of a Robin Hood – taking from the rich to give to the poor – may have been considered glamorous but it was certainly not legal. Nowadays, this activity is not considered glamorous at all but it is quite legal as all those who pay income tax know full well.
The change that took place in a relatively short time is remarkable when you think about it. Taking from the rich to give to the poor is now completely accepted by thinking men and deeply entrenched in all developed societies. This served the great purpose of distributing sustenance and services more in accordance with genuine need than simply by reference to birth or acquired wealth or arbitrary power. Across the board in individual countries, this saving principle holds – to a greater or lesser degree, but it holds. Just to give one vivid example; in an article on post world war economic history in Europe, in Britain in 1979 the top 10% of the households in the country had their original income cut from 14,000 pounds to 9,860 pounds per annum while the bottom 10% had their original income increased from 10 pounds to 2,120 pounds per annum – thus narrowing the gap between the top and the bottom in that society from more than 400:1 to less than 5:1. This is a good example of the Robin Hood principle in action. That re-distributive principle is fundamental in the organisation of any reasonably civilized society.
This fundamental change in the way societies are organised has taken root in every land. Two things are inevitable, it is said – death, of course, but also taxes. Not even the most self-centred tycoon or radical free marketeer would dream of putting the clock so far back that no re-distribution of wealth at all takes place. Outright resistance to the Robin Hood principle would be considered grossly reactionary, absurdly selfish and politically impossible.
This is quite remarkable. What is even more remarkable – and a stain on the conscience of the world – is that this same principle, taken for granted within states, is not at all taken for granted between states. Indeed the principle of re-distribution of wealth in favour of the poor among nations is all too often resisted and scorned by the same people who accept the principle in their own countries. At the purely rational and philosophical levels, this is disgraceful. At the practical level, it means continued deprivation for millions of individual human beings in poor countries. As Mr Tom Clausen, once President of the World Bank, said long ago: “the Bank is not in the business of re-distributing wealth from one set of countries to another. The Bank is not the Robin Hood of the international financial set.”
Well, there you have it, very precisely expressed – a principle which is fundamental to relationships within states is rejected when it serves to improve relationships between states. And today the signs, even more than before, are everywhere. America, for instance, has clearly turned toughly against international efforts to increase aid to poor countries and reduce worldwide poverty through multilateral concessionary lending. The percentage of rich world income given over to assisting the poor of the world is going down.
With a sense of despair one gets the feeling that the world is filling up with petty men and that the most contagious and deadly disease abroad now is simple selfishness. The current huge-egoed, small-minded “leader of the free world”, intent only on making America great again to use his absurdly mean-spirited phrase, represents very well the new principle of selfishness abroad in the world.
If all was even half-way right with the world, the Robin Hood principle would have been applied wholeheartedly long ago to relations between nations – more debt cancellation and taxing arms, dirty energy and capital exchanges for the benefit of the poor – with some chance of partial realisation of a better life for the desperately deprived. Regrettably, however, these are ideas whose time has not come. Perhaps much later this century such ideas will seem as obvious in their application as national income tax now seems. But not yet, sadly not yet.