To the Wealthiest Five Percent

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown spoke to the joint US Congress in Washington yesterday, and received numerous standing ovations. Here is an excerpt of what Brown said.

My father was a Minister of the Church and I have learned again what I was taught by him: that wealth should help more than the wealthy, that good fortune should serve more than the fortunate, and that riches must enrich not just some of our communities, but all of our communities. And these enduring values are in my view the values we need for these new times.

And let us never forget in times of turmoil our duty to the least of these, the poorest of the world. In the Rwanda Museum of Genocide there is a memorial to the countless children who were among those murdered in the massacres in Rwanda. And there is one portrait of a child – David. The words beneath him are brief yet they weigh on me heavily. It says: Name – David; aged 10; favourite sport – football; enjoyed making people laugh; dream – to become a doctor; cause of death – tortured to death, last words – the United Nations will come for us.

But we never did.

That child believed the best of us. That he was wrong is to our eternal discredit. We tend to think of a day of judgment as a moment to come, but our faith tells us, as the writer said, that judgment is more than that, it is a summary court in perpetual session.

And when I visit those bare, run down, yet teeming class rooms across Africa, they are full of children, like our children, desperate to learn. But because we have been unable as a world to keep our promises to help, more and more children, I tell you, are being lured to expensively funded madrassas teaching innocent children to hate us. So for our security, and our children’s security, and these children’s future, you know the greatest gift of our generation, the greatest gift we could give to the world, the gift of America and Britain could be that every child in every country should have the chance that 70 million children today do not have – the chance to go to school, to spell their names, to count their age and perhaps learn of a great generation who are striving to make their freedom real.

So let us remember that there is a common bond that across different beliefs, cultures and nationalities unites us as human beings. It is at the core of my convictions, it is the essence of America’s spirit, it is the heart of all our faiths, and it must be at the centre of our response to this crisis too. Our values tell us that we cannot be wholly comfortable while others go without comfort, but our communities can never be fully at ease if millions feel ill at ease, that our society cannot be truly strong when millions are left so weak. And this much we know, when the strong help the weak, it makes us all stronger.

And this too is true. All of us know that in a recession the wealthiest, the most powerful and the most privileged can find a way through. So we don’t value the wealthy less when we say that our first duty is to help the not so wealthy, we don’t value the powerful less when we say our first responsibility is to help the powerless, and we do not value those who are secure less when we say our first priority must be to help the insecure.

These recent events have forced us all to think anew. And while I have learnt many things over these last few months, I keep returning to something I first learned in my father’s church as a child. In these most modern of crises I am drawn to the most ancient of truths; wherever there is hardship, wherever there is suffering, we cannot, we will not, we will never pass by on the other side.

Memo to middle-class American Obama-supporters who want the richest 5% to pay even more to the welfare state: In the world, you are in the top 5%. Surely you wealthy privileged Americans “can find a way through” with less health care and education for your children, a small apartment in an unsafe neighborhood, a no-frills food budget, no new clothes, and no electronic gadgets. Remember Obama’s mantras: “Shared Sacrifice.” “Shared Prosperity.” “We are our brother’s keeper.”

Is it your hard work over the years that has made the rest of the world poor?

Is it the most wealthy Americans that are now causing you to struggle?

It is not the wealthy who have been bleeding you dry. Your own wealth has been going to the welfare state. No matter how much you pay, it will never be enough—for the poor in America, for the poor in the world.

The alternative to Brown and Obama’s ethics of sacrifice is the ethics of selfishness identified by Ayn Rand, who wrote this:

I came here to say that I do not recognize anyone’s right to one minute of my life. Nor to any part of my energy. Nor to any achievement of mine. No matter who makes the claim, how large their number or how great their need.

I wished to come here and say that I am a man who does not exist for others.

It had to be said. The world is perishing from an orgy of self-sacrificing.

[Howard Roark in The Fountainhead, 1943.]