When the global economic order favors the rich | Inquirer Opinion

When the global economic order favors the rich

Thomas Nagel, who was a student of the revered John Rawls at Harvard, argues in a celebrated essay, “The Problem of Global Justice,” that the duty of justice is strictly political, an obligation that is restricted to fellow citizens in a sovereign state. He says that globally, in the absence of a world regime, justice between and among peoples is impossible. What sovereign states can extend to the global poor, in this regard, is respect for human rights. For Nagel, the right to equality is something that emanates from the power of sovereignty.

Justice serves the purpose of the basic structure set up under the rule of one sovereign government. This relation within the basic structure is political, not moral. This political relation is established by way of the legitimacy citizens confer upon their government. The power of a sovereign state toward its members defines the basis and limits of such associative relation. This associative relation can be defined as state membership. It is only through such that citizens can claim, Nagel says, “a right to democracy, equal citizenship, non-discrimination, equality of opportunity, and the amelioration through public policy fairness in the distribution of social and economic goods.”


When you use an Apple product, or drive your Ford Ranger, or even when you watch “Game of Thrones,” you contribute to the wellbeing of people in the First World, not in your own backyard. Your Xbox console contains rare-earth materials, some of which are mined in difficult locations. Yet, while you make rich nations become richer by enjoying the fruit of human ingenuity in today’s advanced age, morality plays an insignificant role in the matter by which the economic terms of social cooperation among nations are being played out.

The reason for this is that equality, Nagel asserts in his essay, is only between and among citizens, not between or among peoples. The reason is that there is no global basic structure to govern the fair terms of socioeconomic cooperation in the world. The bargaining that we find in the World Trade Organization, including concessions that occur during climate-change discussions, involves matters that concern states, not individuals. We can say then that the idea of distributive justice is limited to what citizens owe to their fellow citizens and not to outsiders. Nagel is of the opinion that “everyone may have a right to live in a just society, but we do not have an obligation to live in a just society with everyone. The right to justice is the right that the society one lives in be justly governed.”


These points imply that global inequality, the imbalance of wealth between rich and poor nations, and the economic suffering that it brings are not a problem that the basic structure of rich nations must address. The political relation of citizens does not give rise to the obligations of justice to outsiders. However, in the issue of global inequality, Peter Singer makes a valid point when he says that “neither race nor nation determines the value of a human being’s life.”

Unarguably, the global economic order favors the rich. Protectionist policies of powerful states perpetuate global poverty. In order to advance real economic development in poor nations, there must be structural changes in the global economic order. Global poverty is something that can be attributed to the weakness of internal structures in the Third World. Still, global ethics are absent during trade negotiations.

Thomas Pogge, who was supervised by Rawls at Harvard, advocates what he calls a global difference principle. He argues that “by seeing the problem of poverty merely in terms of assistance, we overlook that our economic advantage is deeply tainted by how it accumulated over the course of one historical process that has devastated other societies.” Joseph Stiglitz echoes this when he reveals how the policies of the International Monetary Fund have actually stymied development rather than uplifted the lives of the global poor.

While the citizens of rich countries look down upon migrant workers, it must be noted that rich countries also benefit from them. Nation-building in countries like Singapore and Saudi Arabia has been at the expense of the least advantaged citizens of poor nations who labor at the dirty jobs they offer. The unjust policies of certain states—for instance in Singapore, which limit migrant workers’ access to government institutions—make them poor victims of maltreatment. State governments owe these workers the justice they deserve.

Global structures need to be adjusted to make the playing field fair. These adjustments do not require the diminution of state sovereignty. What is required is to open economic borders and end statecentric protectionist policies that are detrimental to the global poor. The greatest scandal to humanity has been the fact that the economic growth of rich nations has always been at the expense of the poorest of the poor in the Third World.


Christopher Ryan Maboloc teaches philosophy at the Ateneo de Davao University. He holds an MA in applied ethics from Linkoping University in Sweden.

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TAGS: “The Problem of Global Justice”, Global Economic Order, Harvard, International Monetary Fund, John Rawls, Joseph Stiglitz, Thomas Nagel, Thomas Pogge, world economy
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