Sunday, December 17, 2006

Peter Singer on Foreign Aid

In his influential 1972 essay, "Famine, Affluence, and Morality," Peter Singer asked whether we would agree with two simple premises:

1. That human suffering and death from lack of food, medicine, and shelter is bad.

2. That "if it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it."

Do you agree with these two assumptions?

Most people will answer yes. If so, Singer maintained, you ought to give to prevent hunger, disease, and other suffering until it becomes morally painful to give.

In his much later book, One World, Singer cited 1995 and 2000 studies conducted by the University of Maryland's Program on International Policy Issues (PIPA). Americans were asked in both studies whether they thought too much of the federal budget went to foreign aid and whether such aid should be cut. The majority (64%) answered yes in the first study; 40% answered yes in the 2000 study.

In response to the question of how much of the US federal budget is spent on foreign aid, the median answer in 1995 was 15% and in the 2000 study, 20%.

When asked what percentage of the budget should go to foreign aid, the median answer was 5% in the 1995 survey and 10% in the 2000 survey.

The actual percentage of the US federal budget that goes to foreign aid is under 1% (somewhere around 0.7%).

Now, put these two elements together - the 1972 argument, and the later PIPA surveys. What does this suggest to you?

Now, what if we add this anecdote from today's NY Times Sunday Magazine article by Singer?
...A few years ago, an African-American cabdriver taking me to the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington asked me if I worked at the bank. I told him I did not but was speaking at a conference on development and aid. He then assumed that I was an economist, but when I said no, my training was in philosophy, he asked me if I thought the U.S. should give foreign aid. When I answered affirmatively, he replied that the government shouldn’t tax people in order to give their money to others. That, he thought, was robbery. When I asked if he believed that the rich should voluntarily donate some of what they earn to the poor, he said that if someone had worked for his money, he wasn’t going to tell him what to do with it.

At that point we reached our destination. Had the journey continued, I might have tried to persuade him that people can earn large amounts only when they live under favorable social circumstances, and that they don’t create those circumstances by themselves. I could have quoted Warren Buffett’s acknowledgment that society is responsible for much of his wealth. “If you stick me down in the middle of Bangladesh or Peru,” he said, “you’ll find out how much this talent is going to produce in the wrong kind of soil.” The Nobel Prize-winning economist and social scientist Herbert Simon estimated that “social capital” is responsible for at least 90 percent of what people earn in wealthy societies like those of the United States or northwestern Europe. By social capital Simon meant not only natural resources but, more important, the technology and organizational skills in the community, and the presence of good government. These are the foundation on which the rich can begin their work. “On moral grounds,” Simon added, “we could argue for a flat income tax of 90 percent.” Simon was not, of course, advocating so steep a rate of tax, for he was well aware of disincentive effects. But his estimate does undermine the argument that the rich are entitled to keep their wealth because it is all a result of their hard work. If Simon is right, that is true of at most 10 percent of it.


MT said...

He's like a mathematician proving that something mysterious is bounded. Great, so it's bounded. 0% is too low. 100% is too high. What great moral problem shall we solve next?

helmut said...

Once you show the simplicity of the moral issue, then you move to policy. That's where the question becomes one of establishing numbers and percentages. But these are also bounded by the realities of the problems we face. We're talking about a fairly small range in relation to the problems. That is, if it were estimated (to make up a number) that $800 billion would solve the problem of global hunger, and that number is achievable by a 2% increase in giving or, say, resource taxes, then shouldn't we do it?

MT said...

Should we? We're still talking about a mystery. Why should we? Because the average man on the street (though not a taxi driver selected at random) appear to regard 0.7% as too small. What if the best economists say 0.0000000000001% is just right? Then the moral "ought" Singer's proved is trivial. Makes me want to boo the man off stage and cry out for an economist.

troutsky said...

The issue for me is not determining an exact figure but understanding the hegemonic roots of all those false assumptions.If I believe 20% of the budget is already going to aid and all the propaganda about wasteand corruption in aid system I end up using "freedom"cynically like the cabby to be stingy.

The real issue, of course,is why should there even be a need for charity.Replace moral obligation with real justice and "power to prevent" with distributing power equally.Now everyone is sharing the hunger as well as the bounty.Of course I miss that warm feeling of being oh so generous.

helmut said...

Right. The problem is not which number is best. Even determining "best" there is largely going to be a moral question, beyond the ken of economists.

The point is the basic moral argument. The point of me bringing up the numbers is that once the moral argument holds, you then also see how little we actually do, though we think quite highly of ourselves.

Anonymous said...

I think in-kind service would be better. And perhaps a large number of u-hauls.

Far too large a percentage of the hungry are in that state do to this or that militia controlling the food supply and using aid as a weapon.

Giving for aid in the short-term is a good thing, but if the suffering is not the result of drought or famine etc. (i.e., "natural"), the only moral thing to do is to provide security clean water, power, and cultivation tools.

This may require partition of old colonial boundaries to more closely align to tribal settlement patterns (genocide being a "very bad thing").

helmut said...

was anon - the kind of blackmail on aid you're talking about is as much structurally international as it is a function of a corrupt dictator. I posted somewhere earlier about this. Look for Thomas Pogge's work.

Anonymous said...

Thomas Pogge Thanks Helmut I'll look into that