John Minto: Property rights often mean little, if anything, to people in poverty

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Mike Moore brings an interesting perspective to the issues of democracy and poverty in his recent contribution to the Herald. He says that without secure property rights poverty will endure.

This seems to be the main focus of a high-level UN commission, of which he is a member, which is inquiring into this question. Moore says he hopes the commission's work will help us rethink poverty.

The commission is chaired by former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto, and includes former US Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers and US Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy.

Mike Moore describes these as outstanding individuals but given its makeup it is clear this commission will be able to tell us more about how to create poverty than alleviate it.

The US has the highest levels of poverty in the Western world (more than 30 million) despite one of the highest per capita incomes in the world. Why would this be?

Last year in the US the increase in income of the top 1 per cent of income earners was greater than the entire income of the bottom 20 per cent of the population. What this staggering statistic means is that the bottom 20 per cent of US citizens, all of whom live in poverty, could have had their incomes doubled if the wealthiest 1 per cent had simply forgone an increase in income last year.

Bringing up uncomfortable facts like these is described by the wealthy as the "politics of envy". But no, it's another of the seven deadly sins at work here via the "politics of greed".

Moore himself brings to the commission New Zealand's local experience in poverty creation. We have seen huge increases in poverty following policies introduced by the Labour governments of the 1980s, of which Moore was a Cabinet minister and briefly Prime Minister.

Despite all this, in a stream of barbecue-and-beer wisdom, Moore has come to the conclusion that it is the absence of enforceable property rights that lies at the heart of poverty. This has done no good for those living in poverty in the US or New Zealand but apparently he believes it will do wonders to drive poverty from developing countries.

The opposite is true. Property rights are there to benefit the wealthy and the middle class. They mean much less, if anything, to people in poverty.

Mike Moore is on a better trail pointing to the importance of true democracy as the way out of poverty. But it won't come from the pale imitation we have here in New Zealand or in the US where democracy seems to involve little more than five minutes in the ballot box every three years to decide whose turn it is to run the free-market economy.

True democracy involves people in decision-making in all parts of their lives. Again Moore could draw on his personal experience. The free-market polices Labour forced on the country in an undemocratic policy blitzkrieg in the 1980s have been well documented as has the ensuing descent into poverty of hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders. It's worth remembering that democratic rights, to the extent we have them, were never granted freely to anyone. People have only gained civil and political rights after bitter, violent struggles.

Moore has no excuse for peddling more myths about poverty. He's done enough damage already.

* John Minto is spokesperson for Global Peace and Justice Auckland.

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