The Spectator

One world

This guilty thing called the spirit of Christmas

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It is traditional at this time of year to feel a kind of self-disgust. After the wrapping-paper has been burned in the fire, and the last mince pie has been forced down the gullet, you sit back, crapulous and afraid, and try to find some spiritual meaning in the festival of Christ’s nativity. What’s it all about, eh? you say to yourself as you watch your children fool apathetically with toys more costly and complicated than anything you could have expected as a child. Is this it, then? you wonder, and, as the mercury sinks in the mouth of the dying day, you may be inspired by this guilty thing called the spirit of Christmas. So you reach for the form to adopt a child in Ethiopia, and as you open your cheque book, you may be briefly lit by the internal candle of righteousness; and if you are, then you are fooling yourself.

Of course, it is not entirely pointless to give money to relief organisations, and you are right if you think that the disparity between the richest and the poorest of the Earth is more disgusting than ever. No matter how awful your gourmandising this Christmas, the chances are that you will live to be almost twice as old as the average Ugandan. In Botswana the life expectancy for a man is 36. Even in Kenya it is only 49. Here in Britain we are engaged in a disputation about whether higher education should be paid for out of general taxation, or whether some means could be devised to extort payment from those who benefit from university. Part of the argument turns on whether it is sensible to chivvy 50 per cent of the available cohort into tertiary education. In Burkina Faso, only 42 per cent of children receive any kind of education at all.

You are right if you think it nauseating that 1.1 billion people live on only a dollar a day or less. But if you think the best answer is the sending of some trivial sum to Africa, then you are wrong. The answer is trade. Ever since the Seattle riots, the world has endured an orgy of mumbo-jumbo about the supposed ills of globalisation. Huge intellectual effort has been expended on devising ways to prop up the coffee price — in other words, to replicate, at an international level, the very vices that have caused so much poverty: price fixing and protection. For such globophobes, this year saw one major political reversal, when Oxfam published its paper on fair trade. Here, in irrefutable detail, was the case for freedom. A series of economists itemised the effects of peak tariffs, of the kind that the West imposes on the poorest countries on Earth. They showed how Europe — Britain — slaps duties of 250 per cent on African meat imports. They gave case histories, such as the Pondicherry sheet factory which laid off 1,000 staff when the EU imposed illegal anti-dumping duties; and who was the prime purchaser, in Britain, of its linen? The NHS.

Barriers to trade impoverish those on both sides. If peak tariffs were removed, the economists demonstrated, incomes would rise in the developing world by $100 billion per year. If Africa, East Asia, South Asia and Latin America were allowed to increase their share of world trade by just 1 per cent, 128 million people would be lifted out of poverty, and Africa alone would benefit from a $70 billion growth in income, five times what the continent receives in debt relief. The economists also showed how the dumping of American and European farm produce is not only a rip-off for the Western taxpayer, but the chief destroyer of Third World agriculture.

What do they fear, the globophobes? That free trade will see the sucking of white-collar jobs from the UK to call centres in India? So much the better if it does, for all concerned. If people in Calcutta can provide a more useful rail inquiries service, then that is good news for them and good news for us. And while we are at it, let us not forget this magazine’s proposal that we could solve the problem of prison overcrowding by exporting our prisoners to countries where they could be hospitably but cheaply accommodated.

Without wishing to deter you from giving money to the poorest of the Earth, here is the real priority: let us scrap all peak tariffs; let us axe the evil multifibre arrangement; and let us finally rid the world of export refunds for agriculture. If you insist on making some downpayment on this programme, may we suggest that you give, as you have given so generously before, to the Spectators for Africa campaign, so that the case for freedom can reach a wider audience. Our next destination is Iraq, where, under the odious regime of Saddam, 45 per cent of the population have been illiterate, and we hope that our arrival there may provide an incentive to read.