Theodore Dalrymple; Who is my neighbour?

There is a difference between fairness and justice, though many do not make the distinction. A just world (more or less) is perhaps possible; a fair world is not.

I was recently in a car on my way to Sao Paulo airport. You have to leave a wide margin of time to get there because it can take three hours if the traffic is bad. On this occasion, it took only an hour and three quarters but it still involved quite a lot of waiting at a standstill in the midst of seven lanes of cars.

Wending their way between the lanes were ambulant merchants, offering cheap goods: wafers, jute bags, little plastic toys, things that nobody could have wanted very much. The air pollution was terrible; and the sellers looked exhausted. Even if they sold their entire stock, they would not have much money. Moreover, even that little would have to be shared with the owners of the goods they hawked who (the driver said) were mainly Chinese.

It struck me as a horrible way to make a living. I said that I felt like buying something just to help them out. The driver told me that it was dangerous to do so. Some of them (though not many) would use the occasion to rob cars.

Crime is sometimes presented as if it were almost of benefit to the poor, but here was yet another example of how it obstructed them and made their life even more difficult. People were reluctant to buy from them for fear of being robbed.

I tried to put myself in the place of these ambulant sellers. Their weariness was evident. To have to stand or walk in that traffic for hours, and presumably day after day, would be a terrible fate. I saw some of them smile as passengers in buses talked to them, but it must have been a life without much joy.

Was this injustice or unfairness, or some combination of the two?  Everyone would agree that it would be a better world if no one had to earn his living in such an exhausting and no doubt humiliating fashion (I assumed that they were unhappy). It was obviously unfair that they should have had to live this way and that I had never had to do so, merely by the chance of the time and place in which I happened to be born. But had they suffered injustice? To know the answer would require more detailed knowledge than I possessed.

One would not have to be a ferocious egalitarian to be uneasy (or worse) at so vast a disparity in destinies between oneself and these people. But such uneasiness is not a useful guide to policy. The point is to make lives better, not to reduce one’s discomfort. It is tempting to wish such poverty away at the stroke of a pen; but, as Dylan Thomas put it:

The hand that signed the paper felled a city;
Five sovereign fingers taxed the breath,
Doubled the globe of dead and halved a country;

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

3 Comments on Theodore Dalrymple; Who is my neighbour?

  1. This article, seemed to trail off, just when I hoped that it would change gear.

    I have to say, I heard an uneasy echo there of a modern ‘No Borders’ plaint so often (absurdly) voiced by the young. The taking of the point of the randomness of life and equating it to the unfairness of those of worse estate. The conclusion following that one’s own possessions (nationality, wealth) are unjustly owned and must be surrendered to the teeming billions whose need is greater.

    But the randomness, O Fortuna, seems absurd, when one factors in one’s lineage, the small ancestral successes and failures, wars and innovations of millennia. It’s not random, just complex. And it certainly doesn’t seem to infer some species obligation, just because of relatedness. The irony of those who insist such, might in other circumstances insist upon the speciesism of Ryder or Singer, for excluding higher mammals (or drosophilia) out of our calculations…