Sunday, January 19, 2020
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Mark Ellse: Oxfam needs a lesson in market economics

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No-one denies the many things wrong in the world. There is indeed something disturbing about the way that chief executives of FTSE 100 companies blithely help themselves to other people’s money, as there is about about Oxfam, a charity loudly preaching equality, paying its chief executive a salary that puts him in with other fat cats in the top 2 per cent of UK earners.

Alongside obvious and ostentatious wealth in the world, we have desperate poverty. Twenty years ago I remember wandering round the streets of Shenzhen, China and seeing an emaciated woman meticulously going through a waste bin and giving the best fragments of the discarded food it contained to the baby on her back. No-one who has travelled, or watched television, can deny the miserable conditions in which many live, and die. Were we not challenged by the disparity between the very rich and very poor we would not be human. How much we want things to be better.

Our emotions are unanimous. ‘We must do something about it!’, they cry. They drive us to action, to intervention. Like Theresa May in her Conservative conference speech, we are tempted to say change has got to come. It’s time to remember the good that government can do. And we dive in and tinker.

Few of us were born with an enthusiasm for the free market. Most of us passed through a stage in which we were much more left wing than we are now. We may not have been declared Trotskyists, but we once contemplated notions of state intervention making the world a better place. Gradually we looked around. And most of us were influenced by what we saw.

Some of us remember the 1970s and how nationalisation, the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, destroyed so much British manufacturing, making us all poorer than we ought to be. Neither Thatcher lovers nor haters, certainly not Labour voters, denied the damage that public ownership had caused to our country: the essential component of Tony Blair’s 1997 victory was the Labour Party’s abandonment of its commitment to state ownership.

Others looked at the Soviet Union, Cuba, Venezuela, countries afflicted by socialism, and saw that things were so bad that they needed controls to stop their own population leaving.

By contrast, things were different in China where, from 1981 to 2010, extreme poverty dropped from 84 per cent down to 12 per cent. Those of us who were in and out of the country found the changes palpable. Every visit revealed improvements that amazed us. Poverty dropped by a factor of seven. How was poverty scythed down? By the abolition of socialism and the introduction of the free market. One sees it in all developing countries. People like Bob Geldof see how much good the free market has done in Africa.

And yet there are dissenters, the most prominent recent one being Oxfam itself. An economy for the 99 per cent flies in the face of reason. In the language of the scaremongering conspiracy theorist, and virtually no evidence, it prescribes a world order that has been tried and tested; a political system that we know fails.

Oxfam believes in the god of equality. It observes that the world is not equal. But then it becomes irrational. The essence of its argument is that crony capitalism benefits the rich, the people who own and run these corporations, at the expense of the common good and of poverty reduction.

Oxfam has no argument to back up this position. It simply states it. Rich people are rich; poor people are poor: people being rich cause other people to be poor. It doesn’t matter that that the evidence shows that the free market is actually the most effective way of benefiting the poor. Oxfam is having none of it. You rotten rich people are causing poverty and that is that.

There is little real analysis of cause and effect in our society. We need the votes, is the line of the politician, so we will tell the people what they are likely to believe. The truth is sidelined. Oxfam, with its overt left-wing agenda, is no different from Corbyn. It peddles snake oil with venom: crony capitalism, inequality crisis, extreme, unsustainable and unjust, squeezing workers and producers and, lest we forget, cuts in public services, job security and labour rights hurt women most. It reads like Socialist Worker which has trumpeted the same sixth form nonsense for years. There is no balance, no attempt to suggest that those who think differently are reasonable people who have good and moral reasons for thinking as they do. One almost hears the words Tory Scum as one reads it.

What Oxfam is preaching is real populism, fake news that appeals to the public. Let all the righteous hate businessmen. Do they believe it will make the world better, that it will help the poor? Who knows? Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell have been spouting similar guff for years. I expect that even they don’t know whether what they are saying is true. Their goal is political power and this is the way they see to get it. My fear is that Theresa May, as with so many other damaging policies she has adopted, determined to outflank the Left, will pick up Oxfam’s scribblings and make them her own.

(Image: Matt Brown)

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Mark Ellse
Mark Ellse
Mark Ellse is a physicist and author. He is a former headmaster, independent school inspector and A level chief examiner.

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