There was once a land where everyone was healthy, wealthy and wise. They owed their good fortune to the simple fact that each did such work as was necessary to furnish themselves, their family and friends with food, shelter and entertainment - and no more. They were healthy because everyone did various jobs, both intellectual and physical, but none too much, and they ate and drank just the right amount. They were wealthy because they made everything themselves and so rarely had the occasion to spend their money, which accumulated in dribs and drabs over the years, haphazardly acquired by chance and trips abroad. They were wise for they knew that a full belly would rebel if filled any fuller, that to be warm and dry and comfortable in body and mind was the purpose of shelter, and that entertainment comes from within and is best created rather than merely consumed.
Then one day, a traveller to distant parts returned with a curious memento of his voyages. He had journeyed far and wide and found to his astonishment that in other lands, not everyone was healthy, wealthy and wise. Some were healthy, some wealthy, some wise and some were neither healthy, wealthy, nor wise. But what intrigued him most were those who were not wealthy. People who were not healthy he could understand, for every living being declines and he had seen his elders’ vitality fade away. Similarly those who were not wise bore a passing resemblance to children or the senile. But the poor people, they were quite beyond his comprehension. So he bought a poor person and brought the poor person back to see what his healthy, wealthy and wise countrymen would make of this mystifying curiosity.
Being a wise people, his countrymen were exceedingly interested to see how other nations functioned and in what ways they differed from their own country. They knew there is always something to be learned from the ways and mores of others, for no one culture has a monopoly on truth and it is good to learn what facets of truth others have discovered. And they asked the traveller to explain the purpose of this poor person.
Now, though he was a wise man, the traveller had not grasped the precise purpose of poor people in the society he visited. Presumably they were very useful because there were lots of them, many more than the rich people, who were, as far as the traveller could see, a waste of space. But what was the point of so many poor people? He had considered this question throughout the long voyage home, but had failed to find a satisfying answer, so when his countrymen asked him to demonstrate the purpose of a poor person, he was a little vexed. He was a wise man, but he had his vanity and it irked him to have travelled so many miles and seen so many marvels only to return in ignorance. Eventually, he asked the poor person, what purpose he served in his country of birth.
The poor person looked at the traveller long and hard and not entirely sympathetically. He clearly thought the old bird was completely doolally, asking daft questions like that. But the traveller persisted until the poor person confided that his purpose was twofold. On the one hand, and this was his principle function since time immemorial, he did all the work.
“What, all of it?” asked the traveller, stunned by the idea that one group of people should do all the work.
“Well, not quite all of it, no”, said the poor person. The traveller was relieved. It had seemed an affront to nature that one group of people should do all the work. But then the poor person continued: “Just the work that nobody would want to do if they had any choice in the matter. So most of it, yes. But not all of it. Not quite”.
The traveller found the enormity of this too much to encompass immediately, so he asked what other purpose the poor person served.
“Well, this is a sort of a recent invention, this is”, said the poor person. “But, we got this system, you see, where there’s a lot of poor people working at a lot of jobs nobody would want to do if they had the choice, right? But it’s not as simple as that, you see. Because you don’t just have poor people in our country. You got poor people, really poor people. But you also got people who aren’t quite so poor. And people that are quite a bit less poor. And people who are only a little bit poor. And people who aren’t poor at all but think they’re poor. And people who aren’t really poor but pretend to be poor. And people who know they’re not poor but keep quiet about it. And then you got the rich people, of course. But the other thing what all these different poor people do is, they keep the other poor people looking over their shoulders at the poor people behind them. You see, just being poor isn’t enough to keep people doing jobs they wouldn’t do if they had the choice. You also got to frighten them, see? And the way you do this is make them think how hard it would be if they was as poor as the people that are poorer than them. So the people who aren’t poor at all but think they’re poor, are looking over their shoulders at the people who are only a little bit poor and thinking to themselves, Blimey, I better do this job I wouldn’t be doing if I had the choice or I’ll end up like him and be doing a job I wouldn’t be doing even more if I had the choice – if you see what I mean. And the people who are only a little bit poor are looking at the people that are quite a bit less poor than the people who aren’t quite so poor as the really poor people, and thinking, Hey up, better watch my step or I’ll end up like the people that are quite a bit less poor than the people who aren’t quite so poor as the really poor people. And of course, the people that are quite a bit less poor than the people who aren’t quite so poor as the really poor people, are looking at the people who aren’t quite so poor as the really poor people, and breaking out in a sweat ’case they slip off the ladder and end up among the people who aren’t quite so poor as the really poor people. And so on. In fact, in the end, it’s only the really poor people who aren’t looking over their shoulders and that’s because they know there’s nobody there. But they’re all drunk anyway. Fair enough. With everyone else working hard because they’re busy looking down on the really poor people, it’s them really poor people that are the most useful members of society. Got to get something for their efforts, haven’t they?”.
When the traveller had been revived –he had passed out amid an explosion of synapses somewhere about the point the people who were quite a bit less poor than the people who weren’t quite so poor as the really poor people, were looking at the people who weren’t quite so poor as the really poor people; he thought, or was it the other way round?- when the traveller had been revived, he decided it was best not to delve into the workings of a culture capable of such reasoning -he really was a very wise man- and returned instead to the first function of poor people, doing all the work, which suddenly seemed a lot easier to understand. And so, in a spirit of strictly scientific enquiry, the traveller and various other healthy, wealthy and wise people of his acquaintance, stopped doing the work they’d been used to doing, and got the poor man to do it instead.
To begin with all went well. The poor man worked up a sweat, it’s true, rushing from house to house trying to keep up with all the work, but the healthy, wealthy and wise people found it was rather agreeable to have someone else doing all their work for them, and they began boasting of their leisurely lifestyle to friends and relatives, who in turn asked for the poor man to come and do their work for them, too.
Before long though, the poor man began to lose weight. His skin took on an unhealthy pallor. He made mistakes, broke things, missed appointments, fell asleep on his feet. Hoping to discourage his abuse, the traveller started charging for his services, but the other healthy, wealthy and wise people had become so used to having a poor man do their work for them, that they paid whatever price he charged.
Inevitably there came the day when the poor man could take no more and so, as is the way with these things, he duly lay down and died. This was a bit of a poser for the healthy, wealthy and wise people, for they were no longer willing to do their own work and wanted poor people to do it for them. It was nice having poor people do your work for you because then you could sit around and do more interesting things like count your money. And so the people of that country were no longer wise, for they preferred hard work and poverty for some and indolence and avarice for others. But they were still healthy and wealthy. And so they decided they must make their own poor people.
Fortunately, a lot of them were no longer so wealthy as they had been because they had become poor spending too much money on the services of the original poor man, so the remaining healthy and wealthy people were able to employ the people who were only healthy to do their work for them. But the more they came to rely on poor people, the more they spent on them and the more they spent on them, the poorer they became themselves, till soon there were a lot of healthy poor people about but not many healthy and wealthy people. It could no longer be said that the people of that land were really wealthy because most of them were poor. And as time went on, they lost their health, too, because the poor people were doing too much work and had too little money to buy the food being produced by other poor people, and the wealthy people were sitting around doing nothing but eating too much and dying of heart attacks brought on by idleness and luxury. Eventually, even the wealthy people managed to lose their money, which is always the last thing to leave stupid, sick people, and so the healthy, wealthy and wise people were no longer healthy, wealthy and wise, and it was all thanks to that original poor person who had upset everything so badly.
Then one day there came a traveller from distant parts, the same parts, as it happened, that had produced the original poor person. And in the time that the healthy, wealthy and wise people had been losing their health, wealth and wisdom, the people of distant parts had grown so sick, poor and stupid, their society had fallen apart altogether and they had reverted to a primitive state in which every man did all his work for himself. And in so doing, they had, ever so slowly, become healthy, wealthy and wise. And the traveller from distant parts was fascinated by all these poor people.
So he bought one and took it home with him.
Causes Charles Davis Supports
Oxfam, Amnesty International, Greenpeace