Why attacking billionaires doesn’t help the poor

Julian Harris
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The world's eight richest people own as much wealth as the people who make up the poorest half of the world (Source: Getty)

Oxfam was founded nearly 75 years ago with the noble aim of preventing war-time governments from blocking the provision of urgently needed supplies to Europe’s suffering civilians. On top of the horrors of war, the world was a far more harsh and impoverished place back then.

Globally, nearly 24 per cent of infants failed to reach their fifth birthday, while over half the world’s population were illiterate. This has fallen to 15 per cent in recent years, while the number of children who tragically die before the age of five is down to four per cent.

The progress has been vast across numerous measures, but there is still a way to go. These days Oxfam publishes a set of figures every January condemning what it sees as the negative side of the story – the huge wealth gap between the world’s top billionaires and the rest of us. The methodology is attacked each year because using net wealth as a measure suggests that a highly-paid young lawyer in the US with large student debts is poorer than a penniless (but debt-free) beggar in a significantly less developed country.

Read more: Here's why Oxfam's report on global wealth distribution is wrong

Nonetheless, Oxfam rolls out the numbers because they guarantee headlines that support the group’s central argument. “It’s just not right that top executives take home massive bonuses while workers’ wages are stagnating or that multinationals and millionaires dodge taxes while public services are being cut,” CEO Mark Goldring said.

This is all very well, but many individuals and organisations take a different view of the world. At City A.M. we choose to focus on the overwhelming evidence that peace, trade, and a strong rule of law are responsible for allowing billions of people to escape poverty in recent decades. The threat to this progress comes from trade barriers, protectionism, overbearing undemocratic governments, corruption and conflict.

Rather than demonising wealthy entrepreneurs such as Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg (who have created thousands of jobs and pledged billions of dollars to curing disease), we should be lobbying western governments to tear down trade barriers and set an example to leaders in other parts of the world. Oxfam’s yearly report is designed to give delegates in Davos some food for thought, but risks becoming a repeated distraction from the real issues facing the world.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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