The push is on. Peter Singer’s new book on how selfish you are has hit the shelves. The reviews are in. The follow-up articles have followed. The book tour–complete with carbon off-sets–has begun. But as Big Vlad always said, Cui bono?
In my new book, The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty, I draw a parallel with a situation in which you come across a small child who has fallen into a pond and is in danger of drowning. You know that you can easily and safely rescue him, but you are wearing an expensive pair of shoes that will be ruined if you do. We all think it would be seriously wrong to walk on past the pond — in fact, most people think it would be monstrous. Yet most people don’t think it wrong to buy expensive shoes that they don’t need rather than give the money to an organization that would put it toward interventions that could save a child’s life. Although the parallel between the two situations is not exact, even after exploring the differences, I do not think we can justify our sharply differing moral judgments. We should conclude that when we can save the life of an innocent human being at a modest cost to ourselves, we should do so.
William Easterly says, in fact no, the two situations are not exact:
The most important is that you know exactly what to do to save the child, whereas it is not at all clear that you (or anyone else) knows exactly what to do to save the lives of poor children or how to get them out of extreme poverty.
Another difference is that you are the one acting directly to save the drowning child, whereas there are multiple intermediaries between you and the poor child — an international charity, an official aid agency, a government, a local aid worker.
The isolated drowning child elicits an intuition based on compassion, or more precisely, a feeling that we ought to prevent an immediate, proximate harm. As Easterly notes, we can effectively act on that intuition: we probably know how to pull the child out of the water and we happen to be on the scene to do it. But the differences Easterly identifies–the information problem and the unreliable intermediary problem–sets the stage for spectacular displays of rational irrationality.
For in the the case of aiding the distant poor, it seems we have the same intuition. It would be wrong not to prevent the harm. But now here’s the dirty rub. Historically people have long satisfied that intuition, not by aiding those worse off, but by purchasing the goods on sale in the marketplace of ineffective philanthropy. They purchase the good, most likely a donation to a charity of their choice, and then blissfully ignore how effectively that donation is used. Live Aid is a case in point. (See, Dead Aid, Dambisa Moyo.) An addendum could be added to Bryan Caplan’s The Myth of the Rational Voter. He could entitle the chapter, “The Myth of the Rational Donation.”
Which brings me back to Peter Singer. All of his policy recommendations betray his rather orthodox left-wing views and a weak understanding of economics. The kind of redistribution he advocates has been standard fare from Oxford philosophers for 40 years. And a true utilitarian, one who was actually concerned with improving the well-being of the worst-off, would advocate wealth-creating initiatives and policy changes. As Will Wilkinson points out, one place to start would be labor mobility.
Let me add one more difference between the drowning child and aiding the distant poor. There are incentive effects. “Swim at your own risk” signs are in place on the shore for a reason. They warn you of potential dangers, but they also remind you that the responsibility to take precautions is yours. Once we signal that it’s no longer your fault that you find yourself drowning, that we will save you, no matter how far out you are, no matter which rip-tide you find yourself in, no matter what we’re doing now–that message signals to all swimmers that it’s okay to take more risk than they otherwise would if they had to carry that weight themselves. As with charitable aid, so with life guards: we need the equivalent of a swim-at-your-own-risk policy, where it’s reasonable.
So who benefits from Singer’s moral indignation? Well, Peter Singer. He has built a whole career out of rationally satisfying his irrational leftward bias.