Charity dictates that we support this appeal. But does our obligation to help the world’s poor go beyond this? Do we have a deeper moral duty to help than mere charity?
This question hasn’t gotten anything like the attention it deserves.
The government’s position is clear, though implicit. The Department for International Development’s budget this year is £4.5bn. Spending on social security will be £127.3bn. It clearly believes, therefore, that our duties to relatively poor Britons are vastly greater than our duties to absolutely poor Africans.
But are they? There are four separate arguments that we have a much stronger duty to help the world’s poor than these numbers suggest.
1. Utilitarianism. The money we westerners spend on luxuries could save the lives of the poor, or vastly improve them. Maximizing happiness therefore requires huge cuts in luxury spending here to finance global redistribution. Peter Singer has said: “Whatever money you’re spending on luxuries, not necessities, should be given away.” This is one implication of utilitarianism which Richard Layard overlooks.
2. Redistribution as insurance. Ronald Dworkin has argued for redistribution of income on the basis that it replicates the insurance policies we would have taken out before being born, had we had the chance to do so. We should redistribute to the handicapped or unskilled, he says, because we would have taken out insurance against being born handicapped or unskilled, if we could have. Now, it’s a huge misfortune to be born in Niger rather than Nuneaton. So Dworkin’s argument says we should transfer money from Nuneaton to Niger.
3. It’s a logical truth that justice is global, simply because moral principles, by definition, are universalizable; this is Robert Goodin’s argument (pdf). It is no more logical to say I owe more to an Englishman than to a Malian than it is to say that I owe more to one from Wigston than one from Tur Langton because I was born nearer Wigston than Tur Langton.
4. Severe poverty represents a violation of human rights, because it results from an unjust global economic system. This is Thomas Pogge’s argument (doc).
So, what are the arguments against all this? Pogge’s case has been criticized by Mathias Risse.
There are two arguments that are irrelevant for my case. One is the libertarian one, that any forced redistribution is a violation of rights. This argument, though, applies to internal redistribution as well as foreign redistribution. It doesn’t justify us redistributing less to foreigners than to Britons.
Another irrelevant argument is that foreign aid just doesn’t work. Let’s assume this is empirically true; the usual candidates dispute it well. This doesn’t justify redistributing less to foreigners than to Britons for two reasons. First, because there’s also some evidence that redistribution within the UK – at least in the forms it has taken – doesn’t work. And second, take this from Tim Worstall:
By concentrating on financial capital we are missing the reason that development is slow or non-existent. Rather, it is a shortage (or multiple shortages) of human, social and institutional capital that is the constraint, and throwing more money at the problem will not just be useless but will in fact make the problems worse.
This a case for the west helping to build institutions, rather than donate money. It’s not a case for us doing nothing.
Instead, one argument against global redistribution is that – except in extreme cases – the world’s poor are not unhappier than relatively poor people in rich societies. Indeed, one survey has found Nigerians to be the happiest people in the world. This might be because they don’t compare their condition to rich westerners, and so don’t feel deprived, whereas poor westerners do make the comparison and do feel deprived. This might be an argument against Singer’s case for world redistribution. But it’s not an argument for redistribution within a nation, because – as Will Wilkinson points out – it might well be cheaper for relatively poor westerners to change their preferences than for the rich to pay them off.
Another argument against world redistribution is in Rawls’ Law of Peoples. Society, he says, is a co-operative venture between people of similar values. It’s this co-operation that yields duties of redistribution. Because Malians and Britons don’t co-operate with each other, there’s no duty of redistribution between us. Our duty to Malians is to help them become self-governing and self-sufficient, not to give them money.
Richard Arneson, among others, has criticized this (pdf). Even if society is a cooperative venture, he says, this only creates prudential, self-interested, reasons to redistribute income – to stop the relatively British poor rebelling or turning to crime. It doesn’t create a moral argument for redistribution.
Obviously, I’ve only given a very rough sketch here – please follow up the links.
My questions are: how strong is the moral (as distinct from prudential) case for redistributing more money internally than externally? And how is the case for internal versus global redistribution affected by multi-culturalism? If members of British society don’t have shared common values, what is the argument for internal redistribution over global redistribution?