Wealth inequality is unjust when caused by plunder

By Tunde Obadina

As elsewhere in the world, wealth and income inequality has grown in Nigeria during the past six decades. The country’s richest tycoon, Aliko Dangote, is worth more than $20 billion while the poorest villager has close to zero in assets. More broadly, the counts of dollar millionaires and billionaires have soared, especially over the past two decades.

No reliable wealth data exists for Nigeria, but it safe to say that the average income of the richest 0.01% families has risen much faster than those of the poorest 0.01% or bottom 99.99%. A recent Wealth X and UBS report estimates that in 2013 there were 600 ultra high net wealth individuals (UHNWI) living in Nigeria (those with assets totalling at least $30 million), up from 455 in 2012. A New World Wealth report reckoned that in the same year 15,700 Nigerians possessed net worth of at least $1 million and projected that the number would rise to 23,000 by 2017. Although Africa is the region of the world with least number of super-rich, most global wealth management consultants believe that the late developing continent is likely to see the biggest increase in UHNWIs over the next decade, with Nigeria leading the increase.

Many factors can drive wealth inequality. The two most important are wealth creation and plunder. The latter entails the use of force or fraud to seize wealth that belongs to others, whereas wealth creation involves the use of resources in free exchange to produce goods and services for gain.

I have no objection to individuals becoming super-rich through enterprise and free exchange. What is objectionable is inequality that stems from plunder. By plunder I mean more than illegal theft of public property as in bribery and embezzlement. Politicians and their cronies dipping their hands into the public coffers is only a part of the everyday plundering that fuels income inequality.

Arguably the main driver of modern-day wealth inequality is legal plunder. This is when power is abused within the confines of the law to ascribe benefits to some people at the expense of others. French 19th century economist Frederic Bastiat wrote that to identify this form of plunder: “See if the law takes from some persons what belongs to them, and gives it to other persons to whom it does not belong. See if the law benefits one citizen at the expense of another by doing what the citizen himself cannot do without committing a crime.”

Legal plunder occurs in many ways, enabling the powerful and well-connected to make money they did not worked for. Here are a few examples: Awards of lucrative oil concessions at favourable terms Waivers, subsidies and tariff restrictions that enable privileged businesses to trade at lower cost than their competitors. Government bailouts that provide relief for defaulting wealthy borrowers. Foreign exchange round-tripping – buying hard currencies at lower official rates to sell at higher rates in the free market. Banks taking government deposits, then lend the money back to the state at profit.

Financial gains from legal and illegal plunder enable the powerful to acquire capital that boost their stake in the economy. Capital is any asset that can be owned and can generate income, such as rent, interest, dividend, royalty and profit. Unlike labour income, which is derived from work, capital income is a return for ownership of an asset, requiring no work input.

Wealth inequality is largely due to uneven possession of capital. The richest 0.01% of populations in virtually every country in the world owe most of their wealth and income to ownership of capital. Some built their stock of capital through self endeavour, but sadly a large segment of the hyper-rich accumulated capital mostly through legal and illegal theft, often by their ancestors. Gains from plundering enabled today’s powerful and well-connected to accumulate capital assets, such as land, factories, privatised state-owned utilities, oil and gas concessions and financial institutions. They built fortunes through what is for them a virtuous cycle whereby ill-gotten gains go to buy legitimate assets that then act as collateral to obtain big bank loans to purchase more revenue generating assets. It is a form of money laundering – dirty money is cleansed by being invested in legitimate assets.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to determine how much of the wealth of crony capitalists is owed to dishonesty and patronage and how much to genuine enterprise. How do we determine how much of the profit made by tycoon owners of cement companies that have been bolstered by state subsidies and tariff restrictions stemmed from their entrepreneurship and how much from legal plunder?

In an evolving economy like Nigeria, income and wealth inequalities are inevitable. Individuals differ in their luck and entrepreneurial abilities, while the politically powerful will invariably use their strength to grab for themselves as much wealth as they can get away with. This is why it is important that the state, as much as practically possible, is stripped of powers that can be exploited by its agents to plunder. While some levels of inequality are unavoidable and happens everywhere, it is possible to change the rules to move to a more even playing field.

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