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The poor need the state, family and philanthropy (2)

(Shanghai Daily)

09:54, September 14, 2011

Complicated reality

Reality has become even more complicated since then: the family's role continues to decline in Asia; philanthropy, despite a few extraordinarily generous individuals, has more than met its limits in America; and, with the possible exception of the Nordic countries, the state in Europe, overburdened by debt, no longer has the means or the will to shoulder new responsibilities.

So who will take on the responsibility to protect the weakest if none of these three actors can do it properly? Are we heading toward a world united by shared incompetence and inadequacy?

In the Western world, the poorest are the worst affected by economic stagnation. But, in rapidly growing emerging-market countries, the rich tend to close their eyes to the suffering of the poorest, except when they feel threatened by the risk of political upheaval.

In fact, wealthy elites in emerging countries live in a state of denial towards their poor, literally ignoring them. Economic growth is necessary, but not sufficient: a strong sense of social responsibility is needed as well.

It would be absurd to condemn, as some do, globalization as the main and only culprit in the erosion of traditional sources of support for the poor.

Globalization is above all a context, an environment, even if the consequences of the first major financial and economic crisis of the global age will further deepen the gap between the very rich and the very poor.

But globalization makes the weakest among us more visible, and therefore makes the absence of social justice more unacceptable.

A world of much greater transparency and interdependency creates new responsibilities for the rich. Or, more precisely, it makes the old responsibility to protect the weakest both more difficult and more urgent.

In a world of increasing complexity, perhaps what is needed are simple solutions. One could follow, for example, Adam Smith's principle of comparative advantage: what Europe does best is the state, while Asia still relies on the family and the US continues to focus on individual initiative. The problem is that in a world of universal benchmarking, the legitimacy of solutions will stem more than ever from their cultural acceptability and their efficiency.

In Western Europe, for example, the call for sacrifice from all citizens in order to resolve the debt crisis runs up against a lingering perception that not all will contribute equally, and that social inequality will be exacerbated by austerity.

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