New Delhi: As one of the world’s foremost philosophers, Thomas Pogge, Leitner Professor of Philosophy and International Affairs at Yale University, is ideally placed to critique the divisive global debate on inequality. Pogge, who was in India recently, took some time off for an interview in which he spoke on a range of issues, including the challenge of inequality, especially from the point of view of developing countries like India. Edited excerpts:
Are you doing any research on India?
No. I am a philosopher and so I am not really focusing on any particular geographical locale. But, of course, India is in many ways (one of) the most important developing countries.
People’s power: Pogge says the large majority of Indians can counter-balance the influence of the rich by mobilizing public support like Anna Hazare did. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
There is a growing chorus of protest against inequality. How do you see this development in the context of your body of work?
First of all, inequality has consistently gotten worse over the last 25-30 years; and, very fast. In particular, the inequality has gotten worse at the top. So a small global elite has become very much richer than before—that means they have a larger share of global household income than before. And the bottom quarter of the human population has lost a huge amount; they lost about 33% between 1988 and 2005. So you are right, there is an increasing resentment over inequality, but it is also true that our generation has allowed inequality to worsen; we have failed to protect the poor.
What does it reflect, especially in the context of India, a developing country?
It reflects a kind of regulatory capture. Rich people are able to capture rules, to determine the rules nationally and internationally, and to shape them to their benefit. You can see that within countries, the rich are trying very hard to influence legislation in their favour in the US, India and everywhere. Even more importantly at a super-national level, where rich people, rich corporations, banks, industry associations are exerting very strong influence on the shaping of the rules. So the Indian government is very important; it is in the G20 (Group of Twenty) and has a very loud voice in shaping these international rules. Unfortunately, the Indian government is often more influenced by its richer citizens than its poor. There are two reasons: One, the rich are rich and can influence better and secondly, very importantly, the rich are much better informed—they can understand what is happening internationally; for poor people it is very difficult to know even what is happening in their own country and much more difficult to understand what is happening in Geneva, Seoul and New York, where these international agreements are shaped.
Are we seeing some kind of finite limit being reached of such regulatory capture? That is, going forward, you would have to face resistance, not from government, but by protests from the general public.
I don’t think so. I think that nationally there is a kind of breaking point. There is the French Revolution, a point at which people will rebel; maybe we are beginning to see something like that in the US—which is very unequal. And we have seen a little bit in Latin America. Internationally, it is not very easy; because if the main opponent of the poor are international rules, then it is not easy for the poor to do anything about those rules. So, if tomorrow 85% of the world’s population say that we don’t want the WTO (World Trade Organization), what are they going to do? They have very little potential to protest. The internationalization of the system (of rules) makes it that much harder to resist because the rich can separate themselves from the poor and they in turn have no good way of making their resentment felt.
In the Indian context, development for the last two decades has been one based on the trickle-down theory. But now going by the global debate, It is clear that there is a shift towards a more bottoms-up approach. India in that sense has taken a step forward by providing for entitlements. Your thoughts on these initiatives?
These are very good developments and they may help the Indian lower classes to get at least some share of economic growth. I don’t think they will overcome the tendency towards inequality; inequality in India is rising and it will continue to rise. But, at least, it is not rising as fast as it would be rising if you didn’t have these movements. These movements are, as they should in the first instance focus on absolute poverty, fulfilling the basic needs of the population. With rapidly rising average income levels, Indians can afford to gradually meet these needs, while at the same time giving a greater share of growth to the people at the top. So, I see a reduction in poverty and at the same also an increase in inequality.
The increase in inequality is because of the ability of the elite to fix the rules in their favour.
What is really brand new is that the Indian elite can now increase inequality by not merely fixing the domestic rules, but also influencing international rules—this is something where the Indian elite has much greater advantage over the Indian ordinary population. Domestically, a large majority of Indians can really counter-balance the influence of the rich—they can vote for another party or organize something like (anti-graft activist) Anna Hazare, which was a tremendous show of people’s power. It is very difficult to mobilize this sort of people’s power in opposition to international rules.
So, what you are suggesting is that if the Indian government was mindful of the larger global good, then it should be taking the lead in international negotiations in changing the global rules to the advantage of the less privileged.
Precisely. Take for example the WTO agreement. It has made many things uniform. For example, intellectual property has to be protected everywhere; very high level of intellectual property protection. But not true for labour standards. So countries are competing against each other—like India against Bangladesh—to lower labour costs; appealing to people to come and invest because we have workers who are very cheap, docile and obedient. That is something where international rules could be very helpful. But, of course, if there are no international rules, then domestic rules can’t solve that problem; because if we protect the workers in India then investors are going to go to Vietnam.
Do we need to change the political economy of the development lexicon? That is, when it comes to helping the poor the terminology used is subsidies, but assisting industry is referred to as an incentive.
The language is not at all innocent. The language that we speak is the language of the rich. Another example is the word redistribution. People always say that the poor are poor and we have to redistribute away from the rich to the poor. But, of course, the whole system is one that redistributes to the advantage of the rich; all the rules are designed such. And then when they have so much and the poor so little, they say “Oh”, we have to redistribute a little to the poor. We should not allow that language to win. We should say that we do not want redistributribution we want a different distribution that assures poor people of a minimally decent share of the social product and of a genuine chance to participate proportionately in national economic growth.