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Tydskrif vir Geesteswetenskappe

On-line version ISSN 2224-7912
Print version ISSN 0041-4751


ROSSOUW, Jannie  and  FOURIE, Johan. Is increasing wealth vis-à-vis poverty a zero-sum game?. Tydskr. geesteswet. [online]. 2008, vol.48, n.2, pp.195-203. ISSN 2224-7912.

This paper tests the following hypothesis: is increasing wealth vis-à-vis poverty a zero sum game? This hypothesis is tested on the basis of the statement that "the rich gets richer and the poor poorer". This statement leaves the impression that increased wealth for an individual or group is only possible at the expense of another individual or group. Varying conclusions are reached when the hypothesis is tested in terms of economic growth, government conduct and the Barcelona Consensus. Criticism is often levelled at a perceived unfair distribution between the rich and the poor, or an increase in wealth, or increasing wealth for individuals, hence creating an impression of increasing wealth at the expense of the poor. The basis for this assertion is that any benefits accruing from economic growth are not automatically distributed to the poor in the community, as their skills are often of such a nature that they cannot secure employment opportunities in the economic system. In reality economic growth and increased wealth do not necessarily result in an increase of poverty among the poor, implying that the hypothesis cannot be proven as if it were an economic law. Responsible actions by governments do not confirm the hypothesis, as responsible conduct by any government reduces poverty, even if the wealth of the rich increases. On the contrary, oppressive governments that do not recognise the principles of democracy, market forces, property rights or the rule of law often make a zero-sum game of growing wealth vis-à-vis poverty, hence confirming the hypothesis. Historically improvements of the work-leisure balance have not only benefited the wealthy. The implementation of flexible labour market policies with concomitant changes to the number of hours that workers are expected to work, have changed this balance also for labour. Economic growth can therefore result in improvements in living conditions that are not immediately obvious; for example, increased leisure time or improvements in relative wealth, measured in terms of working hours required to purchase items used by an average household. Irrespective of their income levels, workers are able to enjoy an improved balance between work and leisure, thereby disproving the hypothesis. The Barcelona Consensus confirms the conclusions on economic growth and forms of governments: the hypothesis has no merit within a framework of responsible political and social decisions, but is confirmed when governments act irresponsibly. The Consensus highlights international development problems, increased poverty and the problems associated with globalisation. The conclusion reached is that undemocratic governments and the absence of democratic principles serve as a hindrance to achieving a better world economic order. On the one hand the hypothesis is supported if the current pattern of globalisation and externalities such as global warming are taken into account. On the other hand the Consensus confirms that the hypothesis cannot be confirmed in a framework of responsible decision-making by governments. The final analysis after testing the hypothesis leaves two distinctly divergent answers. In certain circumstances the hypothesis is confirmed and in others it is refuted. The challenge facing the world is to ensure that increased wealth benefits all, thereby ending any impression of a zero-sum game. With increased polarisation in the world, we might be the last generation with the privilege of having a choice about wealth accumulation and poverty eradication, and possibly thereby making a difference.

Keywords : democracy; orthodox and structural approaches to development; poverty; property rights; rule of law; wealth; work [leisure balance].

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