The following essay is based on some economic and political observations about the current world. Some might not consider this to be philosophy, but perhaps more of a critique. However, both Rousseau in his Discourses and Kant in his Critiques did just so: They critiqued their contemporary society, and this is a critique of my contemporary society.
We are regulated by at least four things: the voice in our head, norms, rules, and laws. But what happens when all of those fail?
After the second world war ended officially in 1945, Europe and the U.S. started building a rather praiseworthy world. Despite the strain of the cold war, the Occident managed to build a world in which a house could be bought on a worker’s salary. Means of transportation – both public and private – became affordable, and thus accessible to the general public. Likely inspired by the horrors of the war fresh in memory, a lot of Europe and the U.S. rebuilt a world that represented the praiseworthy principles of freedom for all, education for all, and prosperity for all.
The last 40 years has brought some changes to those principles. The start of this is perhaps best marked by such notable 1980s politicians as Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. Their policies made a huge dent in the three praiseworthy principles mentioned above. After their rule there is still freedom, education, and prosperity. But they are no longer for all. If you have money, then you have freedom. If you have money, then you can buy an education. And if you have money, then you will have more money.
The politics of that age started the effect. And like a little snowball grows large when rolling down a snowy hill, this effect has grown massive.
In both politics and economics there are not one, but two worlds. There is the world for the workers, and the world for the owners. The world for the ordinary, and the world for the stupendous. The world for mice, and the world for elephants.
Take economics: On the one hand there is a vast mountain of debt in the Occident. This mountain of debt gets a fair share of media coverage. It looms over ordinary people like a storm cloud waiting to strike. It comes in all shapes and sizes, too. National debt, student debt, private debt, you name it.
Debt is unsettling for most people. Generally speaking, we do not like knowing that we owe someone something. But it seems that someone likes debt, because total worldwide debt is approximately 72 trillion USD [i]. That is 72 followed by 12 zeros.
However, that mountain is not the vastest. There is an even bigger one: the mountain of idle cash. There is no public record of how large this mountain is, as most of it is private. However, with almost five trillion USD laying idle in money markets alone [ii], and several trillions of tax-evading dollars being revealed in the Panama and Pandora papers [iii], I think it is a fair estimate to say that there is at least 72 trillion USD of idle cash laying around.
But wait, there seems to be a paradox here. How can there be such a concerning amount of debt, and at the same time an even bigger amount of idle cash laying around, doing nothing? Why have politicians not erased the debt with the idle cash? Given that the west consists of democracies, then surely the elected rulers would erase the mountain of debt.
This duality of worlds is also found in the world of politics.
Among the high and mighty there seems to be a code of conduct which prevents too much change. Should you follow this code of conduct then you will be well received, however your integrity might suffer. Hence, all politicians, elected or not, face the same dilemma: integrity or effectiveness. Either you can keep your integrity and fight the good fight. However, doing so will severely harm your effectiveness as a politician. Or you may submit to the code of conduct and keep your seat at the table, resulting in the list of things that you are allowed to say being severely shortened.
This is what happened to Yanis Varoufakis [iv] during his negotiations with the EU. He recounts the difficult transition from freely outspoken academic to severely restrained politician. And the mandated restraint seems to not be worth the price. Alas, the code of conduct seems only to maintain the status quo. And by limiting the speech of newcomers to the political game, it makes it difficult to fight it.
Ordinary people who do not wield the might of neither private nor public institutions retain a lot of their freedom of speech. But not all of it. Freedom of speech is diminishing, both culturally and institutionally.
In terms of culture: political correctness, fake news, and cancel culture all serve to tighten the rope around speech. They provide rules and norms for what is and is not allowed to talk about.
As for institutions that diminish free speech there is an abundance of cases. Maria Ressa, Dmitrij Muratov, Julian Assange, and Chelsea Manning, are all examples of this. They have been and still are persecuted by their own governments for speaking out against them.
The elected rulers of the free world are supposed to govern the free world. So, what happened?
Walking in ordinary shoes
However, the two worlds are perhaps best felt when walking in an ordinary person’s shoes. A person who works to survive, who pays the bills, and is told to recycle soda cans.
While ordinary people are pleading for enough resources to stay warm, and simultaneously being told to recycle soda cans, the prosperous administration of Amazon are instructing their subordinates to destroy perfectly good items instead of giving them away. Why? Certainly not because there is a lack of need. But because giving them away would harm profits. Thus, it seems that maximising profits excludes altruism. But not all altruism.
Red Nose Day is a relatively new day in the calendar. It is clearly motivated by ethics. It marks a day in the year where everyone gives to charity. When I say everyone, I mean ordinary people. The same people who could use those items destroyed by the likes of Amazon’s bosses. These people are incentivised to give of what little they have. And they do in fact give. Not because they have no use for the money, but because they believe it to be right. Red Nose Day is a day where hundreds of millions prove that they are motivated by ethics.
The ones in the other world – who do not walk in ordinary shoes but in platinum moccasins, and who have more to give than entire countries – give only what they must. Solely when dictated by the law or moved by mounting social pressure will they open their enormous wallets, let out a measly percentage, and then firmly close it again. Ethics, it seems, is not the prime motivator.
When ethics do not cut it, laws are made. Our moral compasses guide us away from harming or killing others. And so do laws. But why do laws allow economic harm? Why are the elected rulers not forcing these people to contribute a greater amount to the commonwealth upon which they rely? It seems that all four regulators have failed in ensuring ethical decisions.
I have argued for the existence of three paradoxes of western society in this essay.
- The twin mountains of debt and idle cash.
- The need for items and the destruction of those items.
- Laws against harm and the permittance to harm economically.
The paradoxes entail two worlds. One in need of cash, and another where cash is overflowing. One in need of items, and another where items are destroyed. One in which those who have little still donate, and another that would rather watch vast amounts of funds sit in an account and do nothing but harm.
These paradoxes are not just theoretical; they are palpable. They are felt by the elephants in abundant luxury, and by the mice in abundant austerity. For as long as they continue to exist, they harm the free world. They harm freedom, education, and prosperity as principles intended for all. They infect society in its deepest integrity.
And the funny part? We do not need a genius physicist, mathematician, philosopher, doctor, engineer, or any other kind of brilliant mind to solve these paradoxes. With the right political will, idle cash, destruction of items, and permittance of economic harm would be made illegal. Therefore, the very fact that these paradoxes exist is a testament to political will being in their favour. As the recently deceased Desmond Tutu wrote:
If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.
I have also argued for the existence of elephants and mice. Let there be no doubt: There exist plenty of elephants. They have a foot firmly planted on the mice’s tails. And another firmly planted on resources. A mouse cannot do what an elephant does. As far as they are concerned, they live in different worlds. And as long as anyone – be that mouse or elephant – sits idly by while the elephants trap the mice, they are not neutral. They are on the side of the oppressor.
There is freedom, but not for all. There is education, but not for all. There is prosperity, but not for all. There might be one earth and one society being discussed here. However, there are at least two worlds. That of the mighty elephants, and that of the ordinary mice. And the foundations of this division seem to me to be unethical.
[i] ‘World Debt Clock - Real Time National Debt Clocks’, Wolrd Debt Clocks<https://worlddebtclocks.com/> [accessed 6 January 2022].
[ii] Jesse Pound, ‘There’s Nearly $5 Trillion Parked in Money Markets as Many Investors Are Still Afraid of Stocks’, CNBC, 2020 <https://www.cnbc.com/2020/06/22/theres-nearly-5-trillion-parked-in-money-markets-as-many-investors-are-still-afraid-of-stocks.html> [accessed 6 January 2022].
[iii] ‘Panama Papers’, Panama Papers <https://panamapapers.org/> [accessed 6 January 2022]; ‘Pandora Papers - ICIJ’ <https://www.icij.org/investigations/pandora-papers/> [accessed 6 January 2022].
[iv] Yanis Varoufakis, Adults in the Room : My Battle with Europe’s Deep Establishment, Adults in the Room (Random House UK, 2017).
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