BUILDING BRIDGES

The Duty to Extend a Hand

Close up of businessman's hand extended palm up
The rich must help the poor.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Modern capitalism is no longer about the “haves” and the “have nots.” Instead, it’s all about who’s on the inside and who’s left out in the cold. If we want a fairer world, writes the author, both sides must extend a hand to the other.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • Poor countries are not those that are run down by Western companies, but rather those which are not integrated into global trade, says the author.
    • Geography plays a role. In Europe, for instance, crisis countries in the south like Greece and Portugal are far from the core of the euro-zone economy.
    • Insiders who remain indifferent to social problems, and outsiders who only see themselves as victims, are both in the wrong, writes the author.
  • Audio

    Audio

  • Pdf

For thousands of years, there was a clear explanation for social injustice. German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel called it “master and servant” — one has the power and the other must obey.

But with the end of feudalism and the emergence of capitalism, this power relationship faded into the background.

Now, workers can make contracts with companies – or not.

But economic inequality didn’t create any other choice than to “freely” choose to become a servant. At the same time, this inequality was reproduced, because workers had to cede added value to their employers.

The poor today are not the oppressed or the exploited, but rather the excluded.

Hegel’s successor, the philosopher and economist Karl Marx, described this new form of injustice as “exploiter and exploited” — or “capitalists and proletariat.”

And according to this ideology on which communism was based, the illusion of voluntary action – taking work – led back again to the old “master and servant” relationship.

Nearly two centuries later, there is another form of inequality. Those who gain a foothold in the economic system are rich. Those who are shut out are poor. It applies at every level of society. The poor today are not exploited workers, but those who can’t find decent jobs.

Poor countries are not those run down by Western companies, but rather those which are not integrated into global trade. The poor today are not the oppressed or the exploited, but rather the excluded.

This inequality by exclusion is the result of many factors.

With states, geography often plays a role. Problem countries and regions of Europe — such as Greece, Sicily or Portugal — are far from the economic core of the euro-zone and its leading economy, Germany.

Cultural differences also lead to exclusion or historical divides, such as those between whites and blacks in the United States – communities which have experienced American history from entirely different perspectives.

So who’s to blame?

Earlier it was simple: The “masters,” oppressors or exploiters were to blame. The left today applies this reasoning to current forms of inequality.

Wealthy countries must offer chances to poor countries, but they also must exert enormous efforts to integrate them into global trade.

People who are born white in a wealthy country are made to feel guilty — as if they stole happiness from someone else who wasn’t born into such privilege.

Inequality is often seen as the consequence of unjust systems. In the United States, for instance, it is often cited as proof of racism.

Conservatives or liberals, on the other hand, see it differently: Everyone is allowed to play in the big game of Monopoly. Those who don’t manage under capitalism can’t blame others for their lack of success.

The result is that people on the left and the right often talk past one another about the roots of wealth and poverty.

Who then is responsible for making outsiders into insiders? The insiders, or the outsiders themselves?

The answer is simple: Both sides have a duty to reach out to the other to overcome the problem. That might not be a pragmatic solution, but rather an ethical requirement.

Both insiders who stay indifferent to social problems and outsiders who can only see themselves as victims, are in the wrong.

Wealthy countries, for example, must offer chances to poor countries, but they also must exert enormous efforts to integrate them into global trade.

Excluding others is a sin of modern capitalism. Everyone, regardless of where they stand in society, is responsible for their chances in the labor market. But at the same time, it’s in everyone’s interests for companies to also offer chances for outsiders.

 

To contact the author: wiebe@handelsblatt.com

We hope you enjoyed this article

Make sure to sign up for our free newsletters too!