THE BASIC DISTRIBUTION of the world's wealth has changed little in the recent decades of rapid growth. In 1977,as in 1947, some 80 per cent of trade and investments 93 per cent of industry and almost 100 per cent of research, services, insurance banking facilities are controlled by the market and planned economies of "The North" (with Australasia and South Afric as wealthy "Southern appendages"). Yet the population of affluent lands is only 26 per cent, and declining as a percentage of the planet's peoples.
In any modern society, such a tremendous skew in wealth would be in some measure redressed by a progressive income tax. Steady and automatic transfer of resources would occur between the well-to-do and their poorer neighbors. But the planet, shrunk though it may be by science and communincations and the annihilation of space to little more than a global township, has no such mechanisms of transfer to even out the world's extraordinary discrepancies in wealth and opportunity. True, the developed nations are committed in theory to alloting 0.7 per cent of their gross national products to aid. but the average figure is under 0.35 per cent, and for some of the richest, lower still. There is not a smell of "automaticity" here.
Nor can there be when the decision to five aid is essentially a unilateral state decision, akin to philantropy, not to the internal revenue system. And just because it is voluntary and therefore in a measure arbitrary, there has long been discussion of whether a genuine system of international taxation should not be instituted, and become a fundamental expression of mutual obligation at the planetary level.
Yet "between the idea and the reality falls the shadow" - and in this case the shadow is some 30 years long. It is sobering thought that it was Trygve Lie, the first secretary general of the United Nations, who set up a coordinating committee to consider international taxation. It was only this September, at the U.N. Conference on Desertification in Nairobi, that the principle of automatic transfers was approved by governments for the very first time. Dr. Mostafa Tolba, Egyptian secretary general of the conference, suggested a 0.1 per cent value added tax on oil, phosphates and other desert minerals as a means of financing worldwide action against desert growth. At the end of the yea the U.N. General Assembly in New York will be asked to endorse this taxation principle for deserts.
STILL, IF WE ADMIT the importance of a clearly established principle, the next task is to work out its practical implications. The urgent questions appear to be threefold: What should be internationally taxed? To what uses should the resulting revenue be put? And who should administer the new taxation system? All three questions, it need hardly be said, present formidable difficulties.
First, then, what should be taxed. Oil is a candidate for many, since it enters into so vast a range of transactions. But with whole subcontinents like India barely able to pay their oils bills now, does a further rise in cost make sense? A similar difficulty arises if a small percentage is charged on a wider variety of goods and services entering international trade. Would not the result be wholly regressive? So, too, might be tolls on the use of straits, airports and harbors. It is easier perhaps to agree on taxes imposed on the world's few remaining "commons" - the deep seabed, Antarctic, ships deteced causing pollution at sea. But again, the poorest would find it hardes to pay, whether for Pacific nodules or Antarctic krill, and surely no sane tax should be based on pollution unless its aim is to wipe pollution out - in which case, the tax vanished as well.
But perhaps a way forward can be found by leaving the precise field of taxation - save to agree that it must enter international transactions - and concentrate on the second question: for what purpose? If the entire revenue were earmrked for those nations with a per capita income of less than, say, $200 a year, and were scrupulously directed to their basic needs - in food, sanitation, health, education and employment - then their tax contribution would be much more than offset by the benefits, and the tax would automatically become less regressive. The clue may thus be the use made of the revenues and their clear dedication to the word's poorest communities.
And this brings us to the last problem: administration. The chances of the rich nations in their present mood of suspicion and stagflation handing over revenues, say, to a special account under the U.N. General Assembly are slight indeed. The idea would be dismissed as a global "boondoggle" even by those who comfortably swallow $375 billion spent each year on arms. But there might be a possibility of combining the known rigor and rectitude of say, the World Bank will full representation of the poorer peoples by reforming the governing body of the bank's soft loan agency, the International Development Association, and making it a kind of coordinator, possibly in a working alliance with the regional development banks (the African Development Bank, Asian Development Bank, Arab Bank for African Development, Caribbean Development Bank, Inter-American Development Bank and the European Development Fund). In some such way, the rich call for "responsibility" and the poor call for "representation" might be equally met.
One thing, however, is certain. No nation has even halfway peacefully entered the modern world without a progressive income tax. We have no reason to suppose our small planet is any other condition. Automatic transfers must come. Otherwise we live on in an order of privilege and patronage. Such orders, as we know from history, simply do not last.