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Do We Harm the Global Poor?

Peter Singer argues that we harm the global poor. By ‘we’, he means those of us living in the developed world, and by ‘harm’ he means actively damage. He is writing in November 1971 at a time of famine in East Bengal. He observes that if I am walking past a drowning baby in a pond, I have a duty to assist even if I might get my expensive suit dirty. He is careful to specify that it is a shallow pond: I am not being required to endanger myself. He compares the aid spend of the Heath administration at that time (£14.75m) with the projected cost of Concorde (£440m, with the out-turn being £1,400m). [You can scale all those numbers up by around 10x if you want to use RPI as an inflator.]

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Thomas Pogge goes further. Everyone in the West is culpable as a result of the industrial revolution being founded on uncompensated asset transfers in colonial times. We must now assist much more than we are currently doing.

Now I don’t agree with the premises but the argument seems valid. Singer says there is no difference between helping the baby and helping someone in sub-Saharan Africa under famine conditions. I think there is a disanalogy in that as Pogge points out, it isn’t just one baby in the pond – there have been 270m deaths from famine in the 15 year period starting in 1990. You can’t save that number of babies from drowning. The 270m number is more than died in combat in the whole of the last century.

I don’t think there is any case for Jobseekers’ Allowance to be paid in this country, at least while there are any job vacancies. You will doubtless disagree with me and saying I am being too harsh, and that people have a human right to work. I also disagree with that, but it doesn’t matter. Because the question for you is how to deal with the Singer and Pogge argument if you think there is a human right to work or to subsistence at the expense of others. Then:

Why is it OK to spend money on people in Bolton to keep them alive but not in Africa?

Singer wants us to spend maybe 25% to 40% of GDP on aid. He doesn’t want to use all of it because he admits that that would be counterproductive – it would be better to retain a strong economy than overtax it. But then in a variant of the above question, which is phrased for physicists since that was whom I was in the JB with last night, is:

Why is it OK to spend £5.6bn on the LHC when people are starving?

I have given my response to this. If you want to deny my exit is conscionable, then you will need a different answer. Maybe you want to say something like ‘ we should look after the people who are already here first’. But do you really want to say that? Why does conscience end at the borders, if it exists and produces duties? Why should people fortunate enough to be born here get looked after? Aren’t you dangerously close to saying ‘we should look after the people who look like me’? Or are you saying ‘I can see that homeless person so I should help him’ while people you can see only on television who are much worse off can be safely ignored…?

So I would announce the end of Jobseekers’ Allowance in three months with a three month transition period after that. I don’t mind weakening it if you don’t think I have a right to insist that people move – the phase out can occur only to the extent that there are no jobs locally available if you like. Note that this is not Incapacity Benefit – paid to those who medically cannot work – or Carers’ Allowance – paid to those looking after someone. I have said nothing about those benefits.

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I think if we must spend this money, it is morally better spent in Africa and even the economics say so. It is mathematically the case that almost 3 of those 270m people were the smartest person in 100m. I don’t know of any reason why people with the capacities of an Einstein wouldn’t be born anywhere in the world. Shouldn’t we be finding those people and helping them? You can be as smart as Einstein and also incredibly diligent; it won’t help you or us if you don’t make it to three months old.

See Also:

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Jacob Rees Mogg Is Wrong To Say That Loss of Passporting Will Not Be A Problem For The City

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The Psychology of Successful Trading: see clip below of me explaining my new book!