I very rarely engage in social or political comment at Hooting Yard, partly because that is not what you lot come here for and partly because there are teeming thousands of other bloggers, of all shades of opinion, who engage in that sort of thing. On occasion, however, I am minded to comment on current affairs, and readers can always ignore this postage if they so wish.
Yesterday a bunch of “anti-capitalists” took to the West End of London to protest. I noted that anti-capitalists always seem to be armed with the latest mobile phones – I don’t have one myself, so I must be more anti-capitalist than them – and are generally well-fed and clothed. But let that pass. What struck me was a placard wielded by one of the protesters, which read “Make Excessive Wealth History”. (Clearly a play on the “Make Poverty History” campaign of a few years ago.)
Now let me first of all point out that I am as poor as a church mouse, and scrape by on very little. So I am in no way personally threatened by the sorts of people who wish to end excessive wealth. At the same time, I would echo the Prince of Darkness, Peter Mandelson, in saying that I am “intensely comfortable with people getting filthy rich”. Being uncomfortable about it is a bit like being uncomfortable about the air, or the motion of the planets. Throughout history, in all times and all places, some people have been filthy rich compared to the mass of others.
It is worth stressing the comparative. A tenth century king was much, much wealthier than any of his wretched subjects, but, in the western world at least, the poorest sod today is materially richer and more comfortable than that king. (That this state of affairs is due to capitalism need not detain us.)
Apart from the sheer inevitability of excessive wealth, it makes little difference to me, in terms of my daily life, that there are a few people out there in possession of billions. If all that money was taken away from them, would my life be happier? And it is precisely the “taking away” that I find myself wondering about.
That person with his placard – how does he envisage making excessive wealth history? First, he has to draw a line to define “excessive”. Presumably, any wealth above that line has to be confiscated, presumably by the government. Ideally, I suppose, this government would be run by enlightened persons such as our protester, and they would spend the money on things they thought fit. But a different government would spend it differently, in ways that our protester might not approve of. So there’s a snag, unless of course the protester and his enlightened pals could remain in government in perpetuity. That might make elections problematic.
There is also the point about who these excessively wealthy people are. The favoured targets are of course bankers and fatcats and plutocrats, hedge fund managers and oligarchs, a sort of amorphous mass of fiends who we can picture cackling evilly as they grind the faces of the poor into the dirt. What about excessively wealthy pop stars and film stars and footballers? (I was amused to learn that right on excessively wealthy people such as Sean Penn put in an appearance at the Occupy protests to show solidarity, parking their cars a few blocks away and arriving at the scene after a short ride on public transport.)
To take a single example. God knows how rich J K Rowling is. But this is a woman who has earned every penny, from the days when she was on the dole and sat in cafés writing her first book. No inherited wealth, no family connections, no evil cackling. She gives the impression of being as right on as the protesters and Sean Penn. Is it “fair” to say to her, “I’m sorry, your wealth exceeds the precise amount we have deemed acceptable, so we are taking it away from you”?
I do wish the iPhone-wielding “anti-capitalists” would think more clearly about their proposals. Or maybe they are just self-evidently right, and we should bow down to their superior morals?