Thursday, December 21, 2006

how useful is charity?

As it’s almost Christmas, Peter Singer writes in the NY Times about charitable giving and how there’s not nearly enough of it.

[T]he amount of foreign development aid given by the U.S. government is, at 22 cents for every $100 the nation earns, about the same, as a percentage of gross national income, as Portugal gives and about half that of the U.K. Worse still, much of it is directed where it best suits U.S. strategic interests — Iraq is now by far the largest recipient of U.S. development aid, and Egypt, Jordan, Pakistan and Afghanistan all rank in the Top 10. Less than a quarter of official U.S. development aid — barely a nickel in every $100 of our G.N.I. — goes to the world’s poorest nations.

He talks about Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, both of whom have donated roughly $30 billion dollars to charity, much of it to improving global health. Singer comments on Zell Kravinsky, who made a $45 million fortune and then donated virtually all of it to charity.

He comes across as anguished by the failure of others to see the simple logic that lies behind his altruism. Kravinsky has a mathematical mind — a talent that obviously helped him in deciding what investments would prove profitable — and he says that the chances of dying as a result of donating a kidney are about 1 in 4,000. For him this implies that to withhold a kidney from someone who would otherwise die means valuing one’s own life at 4,000 times that of a stranger, a ratio Kravinsky considers “obscene.”

What marks Kravinsky from the rest of us is that he takes the equal value of all human life as a guide to life, not just as a nice piece of rhetoric. He acknowledges that some people think he is crazy, and even his wife says she believes that he goes too far. One of her arguments against the kidney donation was that one of their children may one day need a kidney, and Zell could be the only compatible donor. Kravinsky’s love for his children is, as far as I can tell, as strong as that of any normal parent. Such attachments are part of our nature, no doubt the product of our evolution as mammals who give birth to children, who for an unusually long time require our assistance in order to survive. But that does not, in Kravinsky’s view, justify our placing a value on the lives of our children that is thousands of times greater than the value we place on the lives of the children of strangers. Asked if he would allow his child to die if it would enable a thousand children to live, Kravinsky said yes. Indeed, he has said he would permit his child to die even if this enabled only two other children to live.

Kravinsky has taken a statement that many people pretend is axiomatic, but that very few people actually believe—that all human life is of equal value—and actually uses it as the basis for all his actions. Most people think he’s off his rocker.

As it turns out, he’s not all that different from Warren Buffet, whom very few people think is off his rocker.

[E]ven if Buffett left each of his three children a million dollars each, he would still have given away more than 99.99 percent of his wealth. When someone does that much — especially in a society in which the norm is to leave most of your wealth to your children — it is better to praise them than to cavil about the extra few hundred thousand dollars they might have given.

Philosophers like Liam Murphy of New York University [my contracts professor in law school] and my colleague Kwame Anthony Appiah at Princeton contend that our obligations are limited to carrying our fair share of the burden of relieving global poverty. They would have us calculate how much would be required to ensure that the world’s poorest people have a chance at a decent life, and then divide this sum among the affluent. That would give us each an amount to donate, and having given that, we would have fulfilled our obligations to the poor.

Singer then goes ahead and estimates this amount for the 10% richest Americans on a sliding scale based on income—the more you make, the more you give, but never more than a third of your total income.

[T]he remarkable thing about these calculations is that a scale of donations that is unlikely to impose significant hardship on anyone yields a total of $404 billion — from just 10 percent of American families.

Singer thinks we may have a somewhat weaker moral obligation to donate some additional amount if it will do significant good and not harm us much.

While I agree with most of what Singer says and find his arguments compelling, I think he is focused on the world as it is, and not as it could be. In the end, this approach will not work as well as other options could. At best, charitable giving is a medium-term, partial solution to the problems of global poverty and conflict.

Maybe Singer is thinking practically, assuming that the world is what it is and we must act in the parameters within which we live to have any hope of doing much good. And it is fair to assume that his work since the 1970s and the work of others is responsible in part for the moral climate that prompted Gates and Buffet to donate truly astounding amounts to the world’s poorest, and Kravinsky to donate his entire fortune and his kidney.

But I think that as long as we rely on the charity of the planet’s wealthiest billion people rather than their self-interest, the poorest of the world will continue to suffer.

Most people pay taxes to their government because they understand that they must contribute to the maintenance of a stable, orderly society in order to reap the benefits of living in that society. Citizens pay taxes so the government will defend their homes and families from foreign attackers, to support a government-enforced legal system that protects them from fellow citizens who might otherwise do them harm, to build and maintain a basic physical infrastructure that makes it possible to work and procure the basic amenities of life, and to provide a social net so that the worst off within a society don’t die or live in abject misery. Even hard-core libertarians generally agree that the first two reasons above make government taxation necessary. You need the rule of law to provide the stability necessary for the productive commercial exchange that allows people to live stable lives. And in nearly all of the developed countries, democracy has been chosen as the best mechanism for making the social contract work.

As a consequence of successful implementation of this basic social contract in parts of the world, armed conflict within and between developed nations has all but disappeared. Wealth disparities exist, especially in countries with weaker social safety nets like the U.S., but grinding, life-threatening poverty in developed countries has also mostly been extinguished. Meanwhile the long-promised benefits of development that would bring the southern hemisphere out of poverty and strife have not materialized in many parts of the world. Much of Africa is worse off than it was a generation ago. Wealth-polarized societies in Latin America have also stagnated. Many governments have tried to follow the rules set out in the Washington Consensus but have seen piddling results. Many governments are too corrupt or incompetent to do much of anything useful.

The problem with Singer’s focus on charitable giving is it allows people to avoid more comprehensive solutions. If the richest and most powerful are able to give enough money to assuage their guilt, they can say “we’ve done our part, the rest is up to God.” (Aside from Buffet and Gates, who, as Singer points out, are unbelievers.) People in the rest of the income spectrum either feel they can’t spare much extra or are not obliged to or both. And most people feel that more or less, when the chips are down, their obligation to promote the welfare of others ends at the border. “After all, what are people in other countries doing to promote our welfare? Seems like they’re busier either trying to kill us or keep us from defending ourselves,” goes the thinking.

And it’s true, in the current anarchic international system, rich countries have more to lose than to gain from many poor countries. If the U.S. and Europe opened their borders completely, the influx of people could create economic and societal chaos. Security threats would be extreme. Rich countries in the current system have every incentive to seal themselves up with armies and exclusive laws, locking in the benefits from their productive economies and keeping out would-be attackers. Meanwhile this sealing effect greatly retards economic growth elsewhere and creates conditions where security threats fester and then explode, sometimes even through the walls the rich countries have erected.

Feel-good rhetoric notwithstanding, very few citizens of rich countries actually believe in any meaningful way that their lives are worth the same as lives of people in poor countries. As I posted earlier this month:

Samantha Power wrote in A Problem from Hell (paperback, p. 381) that, before President Clinton sent in 200 troops to stabilize the Kigali airport so relief could be flown into Rwanda (well after the killing was finished), a U.S. officer called Romeo Dallaire, head of the UN mission there, to find out how many Rwandans had died. Dallaire asked why he wanted to know, and the officer replied, “We are doing our calculations back here, and one American casualty is worth about 85,000 Rwandan dead.”

There it is in black and white; it doesn’t get any clearer than that, although the government and punditry don’t normally come right out and say it like that. The calculation presumably varies from country to country—a developed-country life would be worth more than a developing-country life, but only ever some fraction of one American life.

And the other rich countries ignored the slaughter in Rwanda just as studiously.

As Benedict Anderson has asserted, national identities are largely a modern phenomenon and many of them were politically constructed. They are by no means innate, as the American immigrant experience shows. If you could expand the highest political unit beyond the nation-state to include the very poor and the very rich, you would provide the right incentives for the rich to help the poor. It would then be in the interest of the rich to help the poor because both would be part of the same social contract. More importantly, the poor would be able to direct the use of resources within the political unit to their benefit to a much larger degree.

Of course getting there is the hard part. The oilspot technique the EU has implemented—slowly consolidating layers of government at a small center and expanding outward from the core—may be the least disruptive method. But right now very few people even consider some form of supranational government to be a desirable endpoint. Perhaps charitable giving can be a first step towards a more truly democratic world. But I think economic change won’t come without political change. Global poverty is not a problem that can be solved by relatively small (compared to our military budget, for instance) infusions of cash—global poverty can only be eliminated through global democracy. Acknowledging this would be a helpful first step.

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