Rolls Royce Drivers are Baby Killers

You can say this for capitalism. It’s a civilising influence.

Back in the day, when people wanted to demonstrate their power, they’d sack a few local villages, slaughter the menfolk, and hang the plundered booty from the ramparts.

The modern-day descendants of these megalomaniacs are calling for more market research, making the logistics budget lean, and driving a Mercedes.

It could be a lot worse. Demonstrating your power by compelling a factory-full of Germans (with compulsory superannuation and health insurance) to do eight-hour days until your new SLK is ready is not such an ill.

But as our civilisation become more civilised, our moral quandaries grow more subtle.

Peter Singer claims that awareness of the injustices of the world gives us a moral stake in them. It’s like passing by a child drowning in a shallow pond and idly watching.  We may not have pushed them in, but the moment we see them we bear some moral responsibility for the outcome.

So if you decide you really need a Rolls Royce Ghost ($645,000), or a long wheelbase Rolls-Royce Phantom ($1,250,000) rather than simply getting the train (monthly ticket:$109.60), or the Mitsubishi Colt ($16,990) or even that Mercedes SLK, ($119,365), what you are saying is that the difference (say $520,000) you’d rather spend keeping some Britons in precision manufacturing work, rather than anything else.

In the Southern parts of Africa, AIDS affects 15 percent of adults, and in some countries, over 30 percent. I suspect that if this epidemic was in Europe or North America, it would be front page news every day for the next twenty years.

Life-saving retroviral drugs cost US $35 a month. Thus the Five-Twenty G’s you spend getting a Roller, not a Merc, could get 56 HIV positive people from age 20 to 40. It buys 1,144 years of life.  When you put it like that, it doesn’t seem so subtle.

Should you still buy a Roller? I say no. But this moral judgment is in a wide and turbulent grey sea between two coastlines of black and white. If we decry the Rolls Royce, should we forego the Mercedes, the Mitsubishi, the Metcard? Should we eat at all while so many North Koreans are malnourished?

The answers, I think, are maybe, perhaps, no, and of course.  The spectrum gets so grey, so fast, as soon as you step away from its anchor points, but that doesn’t mean it should be ignored.  So long as a judgment is somewhere within the spectrum of ambiguity, it can be justified.

And so, dear readers, this marks the end of my pontification.  What do you reckon?  Maybe you feel it’s an easy case to make against Rolls Royces, but Ferraris are another thing entirely?  Or perhaps you’re an investment banker who lives in a caravan, has only one pair of shoes, and keeps an entire wing of Oxfam afloat…  Share your thoughts.

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Thomas the Think Engine is the blog of a trained economist. It comes to you from Melbourne Australia.

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