A few weeks ago I wrote an article about tax. In it, I said that, while I don’t agree with the “Tax is Love” feel-good spin, I do believe that paying tax is in our own interests from a self-preservation perspective. My article garnered a bit of attention and I’ve fielded lots of messages from people about it – the majority agreed with my perspective but a few did not. To be honest, anytime I write something that a single person agrees with I’m pretty happy so I’ll take it.

Many of the comments I received related to the positive societal things that tax revenue can go towards – healthcare, education, providing a social safety net and the like. The comments fell into two buckets: the majority said an emphatic yes! That we, as a society, should embrace a safety net that helps those less fortunate than us and is a “last resort” in times of trouble. That’s a theme I’m keen to explore some more…

There were a few respondents, however, who disagreed vehemently with my view. To them, the state is the last place that we should look to for solutions to societal ills. These individuals strongly held the view that the market is the right place to solve these problems. Their viewpoints, put simply, were that people should be able to go about their business of making truckloads of cash, so long as it doesn’t negatively impact upon others. The extension of their view was that this approach would be net beneficial for the world since these people, feeling a sense of gratitude for their good fortune, would later in life contribute in ways that applied a commercial lens to a social problem and would drive better outcomes.

These people were generally in favour of the trickle-down theory. This reminded me of a missive from one correspondent who told me the tale of when former US president Ronald Reagen’s house caught fire. The firefighters arrived and proceeded to lay their hoses down on the ground on a hill above Reagen’s ranch. When questioned why they weren’t aiming the water on the fire itself, they stated that they were waiting for it to trickle down and put the fire out.

But I digress.

All this talk about making a bunch of money and then deciding which social ills to cure with it got me thinking about a book I read a while back. Winners Take All is a book that makes the reader cogitate on the role of the elite when it comes to social change. Author Anand Giridharadas is decidedly NOT a believer in trickle-down, and wrote the book to make people think about the role of philanthropy in solving society’s ills.

The book takes aim at the elite who do good but who, in doing so, maintain their position of advantage. The author ties the US approach to “doing good” to the rise of Silicon Valley and the worship of “disruption” along with the belief that smart young entrepreneurs can miraculously crack the code on problems the world has been facing for decades.

Giridharadas’ introduces the concept of ‘MarketWorld’, ‘an ascendant power elite that is defined by the concurrent drives to do well and do good, to change the world while also profiting from the status quo.” In his view, the central notion of Marketworld is that capitalist activity can be both personally profitable and socially beneficial – a notion he calls ‘win-win-ism’. The book continues to revolve around the theme that in promoting this win-win approach to business and philanthropy, these elites fail to acknowledge the right that society, as a whole, has in determining what, how and when particular social ills should be solved.

To put it simply, while it is commendable that Bill Gates is using his billions to try and find a cure for malaria, there is an argument that suggests that if he’d simply paid his fair share of tax over the past few decades, nations as a whole would be in a better position to achieve these sort of outcomes for themselves. The extension of which is, of course, that rather than Gates deciding which ills should be resolved, society as a whole could make that determination. To quote Bruno Giussani, the global curator of TED:

Poverty is essentially a question that you can address via charity […] But inequality […] is about how you make the money that you’re giving back in the first place.

It’s a notion that ties back to my previous article about self-interest being a fair motivator for tax specifically and greater equity more generally. What does it say about a society when a handful of elites can game the system to make astronomical sums of money, and then turn around and have the arrogance to turn around and throw out crumbs to initiatives of interest to them: be it building a hospital, a wing of a University, or funding research into a tropical disease. Those are all arguably worthy initiatives, but shouldn’t it be society’s place to determine their worth or otherwise?

The Scandinavian model of high taxes, robust social services and well-funded education, health and other public infrastructure may seem quaint these days. But in pushing ever more deeply into the neoliberal pushing of market-based solutions, maybe we fail to make space for the all-important public discourse.

Ben Kepes

Ben Kepes is a technology evangelist, an investor, a commentator and a business adviser. Ben covers the convergence of technology, mobile, ubiquity and agility, all enabled by the Cloud. His areas of interest extend to enterprise software, software integration, financial/accounting software, platforms and infrastructure as well as articulating technology simply for everyday users.

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