Many liberal thinkers, like me, feel that shutting out desperate would-be immigrants or refugees is unfair. The reasoning is that we live where we do purely by fortunate accident of birth, and that if we had been unlucky enough to be born in a war-torn or impoverished hell-hole, we would certainly feel justified in doing whatever we could to get our families out of there and build them a better life elsewhere. I have seen arguments against this view, which go along the lines of: ‘Even if we personally did nothing to create this society or culture, our ancestors did, and therefore we have the right to keep it – the people from poorer places should have developed their own countries the same way, and then they wouldn’t need to take a share of ours.’ This story is my answer to that argument.
A little boy, we’ll call him Adam, sits on the ground in the sun, playing with a toy. It’s a simple toy, handmade, a wooden cart with wheels, and a little stick-puppet to drive it, but it makes him happy, pushing it back and forth through the dirt.
Another boy approaches, around the same age. Let’s call him Billy. He also has a toy, a bouncing ball, and he throws it from hand to hand as he walks towards Adam. He watches the cart rolling backwards and forwards on the dusty ground, and says ‘I want that.’
Adam looks up at him. ‘Can I have your ball then?’ he asks.
‘No. The ball’s mine.’ Without further conversation, Billy snatches the cart off the ground. When Adam tries to grab it back, Billy hits him in the face. ‘I have the cart, so it’s mine now. Stay away from my things.’
‘But now I have nothing!’ cries Adam.
‘So? It’s your own fault – you should defend your property better.’ Billy walks off.
The next day, Adam is in the same place when Billy walks by. This time, Billy is playing with a football. ‘Where did you get that?’ asks Adam, wide-eyed. He’s always wanted a football, but never seen one.
‘I sold that stupid cart you made, and bought this with the money,’ answers Billy.
‘Then shouldn’t some of that money be mine?’
‘No. The cart was mine when I sold it.’ Billy thinks for a moment, then says ‘I have an idea. I could let you play with the football for half an hour, if you give me your lunch money in return.’
‘But then I won’t have any lunch,’ objects Adam.
‘Not my problem. That’s the deal, take it or leave it.’
Adam hesitates. He doesn’t want to miss out on lunch, but he really, really wants to play with that football. ‘OK’ he agrees. ‘Here’s my money.’
He gets the ball in return, and starts kicking it delightedly, up in the air, against the wall, bouncing it off his knee and his head. Five minutes later Billy demands it back.
‘But you said half an hour,’ argues Adam, holding the ball behind him.
‘Things change,’ says Billy. ‘Deal with it. Give it back now or I’ll punch you in the face again.’
Adam is furious, but also scared of Billy, so reluctantly he gives the ball back. ‘I gave up my lunch for hardly anything,’ he complains. ‘I’m hungry now.’
Billy smiles. ‘Well, the money and the ball are both mine, but how about a deal? I’ll lend you the money for your lunch, but you have to pay me back double tomorrow.’
‘Where will I get double money from?’ asks Adam.
‘Not my problem. Take it or leave it.’
Adam takes the money, and has his lunch.
The next day, Billy reappears. He is pulling a handcart full of toys which he has stolen, bought or bullied from the other neighbourhood children. ‘I need three times the money I lent you yesterday,’ he says.
‘But you said double!’ cries Adam. ‘I had to ask my dad for the extra money and he made me go without supper as a punishment for losing it. I only have double plus today’s lunch money.’
‘So give me it all, and then we’ll be quits.’
‘Then I won’t have any lunch today. And with no supper last night I’m really hungry.’ Adam is nearly in tears.
‘Well, OK, then,’ says Billy, ‘here’s another deal. I’ll lend you back some money for lunch today, but tomorrow you have to pay back double, plus give me another toy.’
‘What do you need more toys for?’ demands Adam. ‘You already have more than anyone I know!’
‘I’m going to open a toy shop.’
Adam is startled. He’s never heard of a child owning a shop before. But he’s also hungry, and can’t see any way around the situation, so he accepts the deal.
Every day for the next few weeks the pattern is repeated: Adam fulfills his part of the deal, but Billy demands more. When Adam runs out of toys to give, Billy, who now owns a building full of all the toys from the village, just continues adding to the financial debt.
Months pass. Billy now owns a whole street of houses, offices and warehouses, and employs lawyers and accountants to oversee his affairs. Driven by his chauffeur, he visits Adam again.
‘This area is horrible,’ he says, looking around at the bare houses and empty gardens. Most of the households have had to sell their possessions to pay their debts to him. The people are angry, and start to gather around. Billy stays in his car, and says to Adam ‘I’m not coming here any more. You have to come to my gate every day to pay your debts. Otherwise my guards will come and put you and your family in prison. Got it?’
Adam nods miserably. He wants to fight back, but he’s scared of Billy and all his bodyguards, and knows it will end in more trouble for everyone. He can never get together enough money to pay off the debt, so it keeps getting bigger.
One day, Adam arrives at the gate of Billy’s secure compound. ‘I have the money,’ he says to the guard. ‘All of it.’
Billy himself comes to see. He counts the money, and sees it is the full amount owed by Adam’s family. ‘Where did you get it?’ he asks.
‘My parents sold the house,’ says Adam. ‘We are moving into a small apartment. I hope we can afford the rent, but now the debt is paid off we should be able to manage.’
Billy grins. ‘I already knew that. The apartment block you’re renting in belongs to me. From next month the rent will double.’
‘But how will we pay it?’ shouts Adam. ‘We have nothing left to sell!’
‘You’ll have to borrow,’ shrugs Billy. ‘Usual terms, just see my accountant.’
After a few months, the village now consists of two halves. One half is a walled palace owned and occupied by Billy and his employees. The rest is bare fields, where the villagers, who were all evicted when they couldn’t pay the rent, live in the open, making shelters out of whatever they can find, and eating the little they can grow. They have no jobs, as Billy owns every business in town, and refuses to employ people who owe him money, as he says he can’t trust them not to steal from him.
One day, Adam goes to the gate. He has nothing to pay with, but he asks to see Billy. ‘We have nothing,’ he says in despair. ‘Our people are starving, and freezing.’
‘Not my problem,’ says Billy. ‘But while you’re here, I’ve another idea. The people who aren’t already too weak or sick to work can come and dig my vegetable garden. I wouldn’t trust them in the house, but they should be OK outside.’
‘And you’ll pay them?’ asks Adam eagerly.
‘No. If they do a good enough job, I’ll let them eat the vegetable scraps that are not good enough to sell, and they can sleep in the shed. But they can’t go back outside once they’re in, and if they’re lazy or dishonest or I don’t like them, I’ll kill them. Deal?’
‘No, it’s terrible!’ shouts Adam. ‘You can’t treat human beings this way!’
‘Take it or leave it,’ shrugs Billy. ‘Oh, and by the way, if not enough people agree to the deal, we’ll just come and take them anyway. I need the workers, and my people don’t like getting their hands dirty in the garden.’
‘But…’ Adam tries to think of a way out, but can’t. He knows the situation is wrong, but with no money and no weapons his people have no way of standing up to Billy’s henchmen. His shoulders sag, and he turns to leave in despair.
‘One more thing,’ says Billy. ‘Those fields you’re all staying in are mine, and I don’t want all that poverty right outside my nice house. I’m building a big fence, and you will all have to stay on the outside of it so I can’t see you.’
‘But outside is just desert,’ protests Adam. ‘There’s nothing to live on.’
‘So move somewhere else, if you can find somewhere better. How many times do I have to say it? Not my problem. You people brought this on yourselves – we all started the same, and I just made the most of the situation.’
A couple of centuries on, Billy’s descendants own half the world, and nearly all the money. Adam’s descendants are still desperately poor, and most still in debt to Billy’s people. And all because, once upon a time, a greedy child marched in and took for himself everything he could grab, regardless of who it rightfully belonged to.