I recently had an animated conversation with the son of a friend – a young Brazilian with a public-sector job as an administrator in the local Emergency Services. In pretty sharp contrast to his father, who works in the private sector, he is a self-declared socialist. We had a pretty wide-ranging session, running, inevitably, out of time before we had exhausted the topics of interest. We didn’t even get round to religion!
Bob – that is what I’ll call him – talked about use of ‘public resources’ to promote social well-being in Brazil. And I’ve since heard the new President, Dilma Rouseff, refer to the fact that Brazil is a huge exporter of soya while part of its own population goes without enough to eat. These are emotive issues that all responsible people would like to resolve. Of course, the government could just buy up soya (or rice, or beans, or maize, or beef) and distribute it to the hungry. But Bob, and no doubt others, want to go further. Bob wants the government to provide education, healthcare and improved transport links to people who live in isolated rural communities. “How else can these people be helped?” he asked. I told him I wasn’t sure how to answer that question.
I asked Bob what was the difference between ‘public resources’ and plain old ‘resources’. My point was that all resources ultimately derive from the private sector (where wealth is created). What was strange is that he refused to answer. Clearly in his mind it is legitimate to spend ‘public resources’ but he was in denial about the origin of those resources. All ‘public resources’ are taken in taxes from the private sector – clearly Bob thinks it’s fine to confiscate some private money although he was fairly clear that it would be wrong to expropriate all private sector resources. Bob certainly wants to be a Socialist, but he wouldn’t dream of being a Communist!
As a humanist I would certainly like to eradicate poverty, but I’m not about to sanction the plans of Brazilian socialists. For one thing, everyone I speak to in Brazil accepts that the political system is corrupt from bottom to top. The problem is not as bad as in much of Africa, where political systems do not function, but it is a constant drain on the nation. The beneficiaries of the corruption are the politicians themselves (and their families), friends of politicians, businesses with government contracts, and the government apparatchiks in Brasilia. Boy, does money flow in Brasilia!
So, if we take R$100 from private resources into ‘public resources’ and then spend it to help the rural poor, it looks like only (say) R$60 or R$80 ends up doing any good. Hmm, not ideal – but then perhaps some help is better than none? The trouble with corruption is that it’s the hard-working, less-well off, who end up footing the bill. So, is there a viable alternative? I’m not sure.
What I do know is that my own (Brazilian) parents-in-law (and many other relatives of their generation) were once the rural poor. They were barely-literate agricultural workers but learned to sew and make clothes. This allowed them to move to a local town and, after many changes in search of a better life they eventually succeeded in allowing all of their children to get enough schooling. Four went on to higher education. Along the way my in-laws were sometimes without food and/or shelter, they suffered from ill-health and had sometimes to rely on money earned by their young children. I think that most of what they achieved was done without many ‘public resources’, and they were respectable, hard-working and honest people. I can’t help feeling that the difficult road they travelled is a better one than would have been achieved had they been the beneficiaries of socialist good intentions. It’s good that Bob wants to have a view on these things, but I find it ironic that he’s the beneficiary of a safe job and is paid out of ‘public resources’.