Hong Kong no doubt boasts some of the wealthiest individuals the world has seen, with bustling tourist hotspots packed with branded stores. If one was to walk further down the streets of Hong Kong, the scene is no longer one of bustling commerce, painted in the glow of billboards and shop signs, but one of the sprawling and towering patches of grey and black. For many Hong Kongers, this is their life – cage homes, unsanitary living conditions, a stagnant minimum wage despite escalating living costs, and no promise of job security. Prosperity concerns itself with the creation of a wealth of individuals and the strong economic growth of the country. It would be mendacious to claim that prosperity is the be-all and end-all of society, as inclusive growth, the fulfillment of international obligations, and the safeguard of social wellbeing are all priorities that should not be second fiddle to economic gains.
Inclusive growth is a priority that is necessary for building an equitable and ideal social foundation for prosperity to be meaningful. Economic growth has almost always come at the cost of a widening rich-poor divide. The growth of large corporations disproportionately benefits a country’s economy, whereas individuals of lower strata struggle to stay afloat as corporate tactics of offshoring and automating manufacturing threaten their livelihoods. This goes against the fundamental goal of prosperity, which should be that economic growth benefits all. In China, the exponential economic growth since the economic reforms under Deng Xiaoping in 1978 obscured alarmingly severe rural-urban disparities. While China’s economy is second only to the United States, a historical powerhouse, its Gini coefficient is consistently above 0.4, beyond the internationally recognised warning level. The discrepancy between disposable incomes of well-developed cities and underdeveloped cities populated by ethnic minorities is also concerning, with Shanghai’s GDP being more than 4 times higher than Tibet’s. Such inequality has disastrous repercussions on society as the working class grows increasingly disillusioned and tensions between the lower and upper echelons of society intensify. “Killing the rich” has taken a literal toll on Chinese society, as the murders of tycoons such as Li Haicang have become an increasingly common phenomenon. In the Western world, the rise of the alternative right, the election of Donald Trump, and the decision to leave in the Brexit referendum are all, in part, products of such inequality. Inclusive growth should be just as important as prosperity to ensure that all individuals benefit, and nobody is left behind.
Secondly, governments should not place fulfilling international obligations secondary to achieving prosperity. Specifically, the prosperity of a country should not be exploitative of other countries or come above providing aid. International cooperation is crucial in safeguarding international peace and works on the fundamental shared values of humanity that bind all of mankind together. Countries should hence emphasise protecting humanity. It is in this vein that countries should not prioritise individual prosperity over this international obligation. Countries, particularly big economic players, should not let their prosperity be predicated upon the exploitation of other countries. This problematic trend can be observed through companies such as H&M and Apple using sweatshops in Bangladesh, Pakistan, and China, and through military tactics, such as the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, where the US’ ulterior motive was to gain from rich oil fields in the Middle East. Any gains from these deeds are inherently unethical, as they benefit countries significantly more than the individuals they exploited. The deaths of countless Iraqis and the following instability the US brought to the Middle East can never be reversed, as lives were shattered and futures desecrated. Providing aid in times of need should additionally come above the economic gains of a country. Protecting the vulnerable should always be at the forefront of the international community. It is in line with this principle that the UK substantially slashing aid to Yemen amidst the COVID-19 pandemic has caused countries to call the UK’s commitment to international humanitarian responses into question. When the choice is between the lives of the vulnerable and long-term gains in one’s economic status, the former should remain the priority.
Thirdly, protecting the social well-being of individuals should not be secondary to prosperity. Intangible aspects of society, such as mental health, happiness, social safety nets like welfare systems, and social harmony, are all necessary to building a healthy society. These attributes enable individuals to achieve self-actualisation, and lead dignified lives. These expand the value of human life beyond acting solely as units of economic utility. Once a country is sufficiently prosperous, such that they are not in danger of having most of society being unable to attain basic standards of living, prosperity should no longer take precedence over these intangible social aspects. Governments have an inherent duty of care, as demonstrated through governments mandating off-days for workers, providing maternity and paternity leave for parents, even if they compromise on economic productivity. The extension of that principle is to say that governments should protect what makes human life dignified to protect citizens from abuse and exploitation. This would reflect what we see in Bhutan, where most individuals lead healthy lives and while not having an outstanding level of GDP, has been named the happiest country in the world many times. Bhutan also has one of the most stable ecosystems in the world and strong preservation of its cultural identity. This can be contrasted with Singapore, which, while boasting an impressive economic status, is notorious for being one of the most burnt-out populations, being named the second most overworked city in the world. While Singaporeans have no doubt higher living standards, the sacrifice of the Singaporean population is their ability to lead as meaningful and happy a life as the Bhutanese. This elucidates the necessity of governments to not neglect social wellbeing in the name of pursuing prosperity.
Proponents of the view that prosperity is all that matters would point to the fact that prosperity is indubitably beneficial to society, insofar that individuals on average enjoy higher standards of living, such as greater access to sanitary living conditions, better social amenities, and so forth. Arguments have also been put forth to suggest that more prosperous nations can do better at correcting social inequality, as there is more money for redistribution. This is through direct government intervention, or through the ‘trickle-down effect’.
What we see in today’s world, however, directly contradicts the aforementioned argumentation. For countries that place prosperity above social equity, such as the US and China, have significant social inequality to this day despite efforts to equitably redistributive wealth. The political and economic incentive to prioritise wealth generation in the system by pandering to wealthier individuals or large conglomerates will always outweigh protecting the vulnerable. This starkly contrasts with countries that prioritise equality over prosperity, or view them to be of equal importance. Countries like Norway or Finland exhibit this, where a high personal tax is collected to facilitate better social support, in terms of the provision of public services such as healthcare and education, and generous welfare schemes to protect the vulnerable in society. Countries that historically prioritise prosperity find it impossible to achieve what Norway and Finland achieve, as their decision-making calculus and incentive structures are too deeply rooted in the pursuit of economic gains. Hence, such prosperity does little in correcting social inequality in the long run.
Make no mistake, prosperity is not a bad thing. The condition to make prosperity a meaningful tool to benefit society, in general, is inclusive growth. In the absence of this, prosperity can quickly enslave vulnerable individuals and shackle them to decades of economic slavery. Countries must not misplace their priorities and similarly focus on upholding their fundamental principles and duties to the international community, and the societies they govern. Only then can society become one that is truly equitable, and one that fights to protect even the most vulnerable. Prosperity is not all that matters.