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June 22, 2005

The good that Bob's Mob may do

Posted by Richard D. North

Richard D. North - the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence - concludes his series on G8 and Africa: G8 Gleneagles Fiasco: How Bob, Tony and Gordon didn't help Make Poverty History - and why that's good. Richard D. North argues that the greatest good the G8 protestors might do is by being so over-the-top that they create a backlash, which leaves open the room for good, quiet, conflicted sense to be heard.

The good that Bob's Mob may do
There is one hopeful possibility. Confounded by the sheer awfulness of the protestor's rhetoric, grown-up leaders may find a way of confronting it with good sense, and may find a ready ear amongst grown-up voters as they do so.

Curiously, stupid and intemperate protest makes so many offensive mistakes that in the end it creates a backlash that allows good, quiet, conflicted sense to be heard. (Animal rights protest has achieved this effect, as did the May Day riots and a good deal of Greenpeace's campaigning.)

If you say the messages of Make Poverty History (MPH) quickly, they are lovely and mumsy: only on the kind of inspection few give them do they emerge as drearily, but definitely, leftish. With luck, Bob Geldof's Mob will be so over the top that we will start to look sceptically at the whole tribe of campaigners and their rhetoric.

The politics of aid
MPH campaign as though they represent "The People", and that there is a popular consensus for their campaign, which is intelligent. But none of these propositions is true.

MPH is a coalition of charitable aid agencies, church groups and trade unionists. These are all minority bodies with their own vested interests. Charitable aid agencies argue for large aid budgets because though aid is often government-to-government, much of it is now channelled through the voluntary sector. Church groups are more obviously virtuous, but they are professional hand-wringers and hardly ever stray from a soft-left liberal reading of how economies work (and are in any case well to the left of their congregations). Trade unionists argue for high labour standards in the Third World partly because they care about Third World workers, and partly because expensive overseas labour is less likely to offer serious competition.

This analysis lets one see that there is very little pro-market, let alone neo-Liberal, thinking in the MPH camp. And yet even the left mostly recognises now that the free-market world understands wealth creation. MPH's manifesto wants to bind capitalism's hands behind its back and then demands that it go forth and do its magic.

It is assumed that G8 leaders need only be a bit more generous to make trade fair, to increase aid and to write off debt. But actually, these are all politically difficult. Though "Fairtrade" has the political advantage that it can be used to insist on Western standards of production in the Third World, that would scupper its value in wealth creation for poor people. A bigger hurdle is the producer interests in the rich world which a fairer tariff system will damage. Years of pressure against subsidies have not freed Western politicians of the influence of their farmers, coal miners, steel- and textile-workers and corporations (and their millions of shareholders amongst The People).

For UK politicians, these arguments are tricky. We could abandon the EU and stop supporting our farmers, but Africa would still have no means of competing with the rest of Europe's agricultural support. We can stay in, and try to bully France into reducing its support for its farmers (but we will fail to achieve anything quickly). Similar arguments apply in other industrial sectors. Memo to MPH: go argue with the French and the rest and give Tony Blair a break (he, at least, is more neo-Liberal on these things than MPH).

The US's appetite for protectionist support of its producers is powerful, and largely untouched by the essentially European excitement surrounding aid and trade. Memo to MPH: go talk to the American voter and give Bush and Blair a break. The more you push Bush about the less he will respond and the more he will be supported by the sceptical US TV viewer in rebuffing the Euro-virtuous.

Additional points on the politics of aid
The honest way for MPH (or Blair and his tender conscience) to campaign would be to "do a Lib Dem": tell the voter about the increase in income tax they're after, and campaign for it.

The honest thing for charities to do is to make a case amongst philanthropic citizens. One of the least attractive aspects of the campaigners' case is that they are clients of the state whilst criticising it.

Richard D. North is the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence.

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