Is there a more infuriating coup in a conversation between an idealist and a cynic than the phrase, ‘But it’s human nature to want what other people have’? The cynic brings this out as a trump card, often with a wry smile that suggests that the idealist is a bit foolish, woolly and liable to be taken for a ride when, after the Revolution, say, the poor go pillaging and looting and prove themselves to be as morally corrupt as the rich. Before the idealist can take a breath, out comes the suggestion that, since someone unfortunately has to be ‘on top’, it might as well be ‘us’.
The idealist despairs. The argument has slipped away and is gathering pace, having been snapped off at that brittle point: human nature. It’s a tough one to debate, because ideas of natural predisposition have to rely on an examination of what people usually do, while the notion of idealism is surely to put forward something unprecedented, to believe that the world and its people have a capacity as yet undiscovered to organise society along different principles. As Ricky Gervais says on God creating light in the first place, ‘It’s not like he saw some on holiday and thought – that’d be good back on earth. He made it up!’
But it’s too late for that now. Invariably the argument will go down either the ‘What about China! Are they making a good job of it ?’ road, or the path of ‘Communism! Look what happened to that!’ Rewind to where it all got slippery. Is it human nature to want what other people have? Well, is it?
We live in times of extreme chasms between rich and poor. The figures are so obscene and heard so frequently in various formats that they no longer really sink in, but here they are again: the richest one per cent of the world receives as much income as the poorest 57 per cent; the world’s 500 richest people have more income than the poorest 416 million people; the income gap between the richest countries and the poorest countries was a ratio of 1:3 in 1820. By 1997 it was 1:74. One in five people, more than one billion, still live on less than $1 a day. (And here it’s worth throwing out another frequently used argument, the ‘but it goes a lot further there’ one. Living on $1 doesn’t mean having the equivalent in local currency. It really does mean being able to afford what $1 would buy in America.) And of course we know – although it’s easy to forget when talking in generalisations – that the inequalities of wealth within these countries are huge too. No country is without its millionaires and its ghettos...