Why individuals, as well as systems, need economic scrutiny

By Bernadette Meaden
April 24, 2012

When we talk about issues of economic justice, it’s nearly always a broad discussion of unjust structures and systems rather than individuals, and on the whole that’s probably the way it should be. But does that in effect mean that the super-rich, the one per cent, are allowed to be comfortably anonymous and unaccountable? And should they be allowed to remain so?

A campaign in the United States plans to hold them to account, and some of the facts they have produced are astonishing. Take this, for instance, about the Walton family, owners of Wal-Mart, parent company of Asda:

"Six members of the Walton family have combined wealth greater than the bottom 30 per cent of Americans."

That’s 93 million Americans, all surviving (some of them only just surviving, no doubt) on what one family has at its disposal.

Perhaps if these individuals had worked their way to the top in a system that was fair and transparent, one could conceivably argue that their wealth was justifiable. But their increasing wealth has given them the power to manipulate systems and regulations to their own advantage, and wield significant political power, often in a rather covert way. Unjust systems and structures do not arise out of thin air. At some point a group of individuals has gathered and written the rules to serve their own interests, and they keep on doing that to make them suit their evolving purposes.

So perhaps we should be keeping a closer eye on rich individuals, in a considerate and reasonable way which respects their legitimate rights. This is not the politics of envy: it’s simply ensuring that democracy is as healthy as it can be.

The type of tabloid frenzy that singled out Fred Goodwin, his bonuses, and in a typically British way, his knighthood, was very unedifying. But there must be room to question what influence the wealthy have, and how they may be skewing the system in their own favour, especially when some of their wealth comes from government grants and subsidies. Big landowners like the Queen and the Duke of Westminster get millions of pounds in subsidies from the common agricultural policy, a transfer of money from taxpayers to the wealthy.

Other people who claim benefits from the State find their lives closely scrutinised. The wealthy should not complain if the same principle is applied to them.

In Scandinavia, everybody’s income and tax is a matter of public record. There is a lot to be said for that system.


© Bernadette Meaden has written about religious, political and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is a regular contributor to Ekklesia.

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