Peter Singer, the philosophe terrible of New Jersey, argues in The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty that it is our responsibility to provide sufficient aid to poor people in foreign countries so that nobody starves or dies.
The obvious objection to this argument is provided by Thomas Malthus (1766-1834), who predicted that human population growth would inevitably exceed growth in food production. Singer does not mention Malthus until page 121 (out of 173). Malthus is dismisssed in a couple of pages by noting that if everyone on Planet Earth became a vegetarian we would then have enough grain to feed everyone. [Not a refutation of Malthus because universal vegetarianism would yield a constant increase in calories available against an exponential increase in population.] Singer does not reference Gregory Clark, author of A Farewell to Alms, the most heavily researched exploration of Malthus and his applicability to the modern world (Clark analyzes data going back to the 12th Century in England). Much of Singer’s support for a cheerful economic outlook is provided by references to Jeffrey Sachs (see this weblog posting from 2006). Sachs is cited uncritically starting in the Preface and continuing throughout the book, as though Sachs had proved his assertion that if we guarantee every impoverished person on the planet free food, free housing, free education, and free health care, all currently poor countries will experience a development process comparable to Germany during the Industrial Revolution.
Neither Sachs nor Singer deals with the example populations that are in fact guaranteed all of these things, e.g., Saudi Arabians. The result of all of these guarantees in Saudi Arabia has been one of the world’s highest birthrates, not a boom in education or industry.
Singer, in asserting that there is enough food for everyone, no matter how many babies we produce, is not taking the long view. It may be that agricultural production is in a temporary boom due to the fact that we have been digging up coal and oil that required millions of years to form. Chemical fertilizer has been the source of much of the increased productivity of agricultural land and (1) it won’t be available forever, (2) it gives a constant, not exponential, increase in output. It might not be a moral act to help increase the long-term population of a country above the level that can be fed on naturally fertilized land. Singer does not mention the use of fertilizer or question how sustainable current levels of agricultural production are (nor does he note that we’ve already more or less proven that the world’s fisheries were not sustainable at prior levels).
Singer argues that part of our obligation to help the poor is that we have made their lives tougher. For example, subsistence fisherman in Africa find that Russian and Chinese factory trawlers have stripped their traditional fishing grounds bare in order to serve European markets. Singer does not mention that people in advanced countries, merely by being advanced, have provided a lot of assistance to poor countries that wish to develop. A poor country does not need to develop calculus, physics, chemistry, and biology. A poor country does not need to invent antibiotics, water purification systems, refrigeration, internal combustion engines, the stored program computer, TCP/IP, or any of the other essentials of the modern world. All of that can be copied for free from rich countries and bought ridiculously cheaply from China.
The most interesting section of the book describes psychology experiments in human nature. Researchers have shown that we’re more likely to help another person if we think that we’re the only person who could help, e.g., an experiment with two students in a room showed that they each was less likely to respond to a cry for help from an adjoining room than if only one student were present. We like “identifiable victims”: people were more willing to give toward a $300,000 medical bill to save one girl’s life than they were to pay $300,000 to save eight children. We don’t like futility: we’re more likely to give money to save 1500 people out of 3000 at risk than we are to save 1500 out of 10,000. Karl Marx noted that the existence of paper money made people less likely to help. He thought participants in a barter economy would be more likely to send a starving neighbor a ham than modern Europeans would be to send some coins. Modern research has confirmed Marx’s suppositions.
Singer tries to figure out how much it actually costs to save lives in Africa. A group handing out mosquito nets can save lives (from malaria) at $200 per life per year. But the person saved from malaria might also die from another infectious disease or from a lack of clean water. Different organizations give different benefit estimates for their various programs. Adding up all of the numbers, it looks as though it will cost thousands of dollars per year to keep each additional child alive. Could Americans afford this? Singer assumes that we can, but he doesn’t consider the facts that (1) the number of poor children in the world may grow exponentially, and (2) Americans are currently insolvent if you consider the likely cost of Medicare, Social Security, and public employee pensions.
Singer cites Rajan and Subramanian, economists who found that incoming foreign aid can wreck a local economy by driving up the value of the local currency and making it unprofitable to continue processing food and making clothing and footwear. Lives might be saved temporarily, but long-term economic growth will be stunted, a recipe for further impoverishment if long-term population growth remains strong.
Singer’s most convincing point is that our agricultural tariffs and subsidies harm poor farmers by preventing them from competing with American and European farmers in world markets. (The 2008 farm bill provided $300 billion subsidies, was vetoed by King Bush II, and then 2/3rds of Congress voted to override the veto (see weblog entry from July 2008).)
Singer says “My students often ask me if I think their parents did wrong to pay the $44,000 per year that it costs to send them to Princeton.” [The cost now is up to $50,000 per year.] Singer’s response is that by going to such an elite university they are going to earn more money and it won’t be immoral as long as they share some of that dough with the poor. Singer is apparently unaware of the economists who researched this and found that people accepted to Ivy League colleges, but who chose not to attend, ended up with the same lifetime earnings as those who attended. I.e., being smart enough to get admitted to Princeton is useful, but attending Princeton has no economic value over attending a state university. Singer does not consider that his own continued participation in a gold-plated playground for rich kids might be immoral by the standards he espouses in this book. If he were to segue over to Rutgers ($9000 per year in-state), that might attract more bright students to Rutgers. Their families would collectively save millions of dollars that could be donated to the poor.
Singer never does address the question of whether by helping to keep alive 1 poor person today, you would simply be creating 100 hungry mouths to feed some years down the road (by which time you might be dead, your survivors wouldn’t be so generous, and now 100 people would starve to death instead of 1). Let me repeat a couple of passages from my review of The End of Poverty:
One reason this 396-page book isn’t more convincing is that Sachs cannot come up with a single example of a country that has been lifted out of poverty by foreign aid. He talks about saving Russia with financial engineering, but Russia’s clever people were making jet fighters, atomic bombs, and helicopters long before they ever met Sachs. He talks about the Marshall Plan for post-WWII Germany, but Germany didn’t suffer from overpopulation and the lack of education that plague modern poor countries; investing in folks that had conquered France in six weeks probably did not seem very risky…
The most serious flaw with the book, in my opinion, is that Sachs fails to devote even one sentence to the modern fact that labor is mobile and global. Transportation and communication costs fall every decade. An ambitious, hard-working, intelligent, and well-educated person has never had an easier time moving from a poor country to a rich country. … If an African achieves the standards of a First World nurse, he or she can easily emigrate to Europe or the U.K. where such skills are in high demand. The emigre enjoys a much more comfortable lifestyle in the rich country, can make free voice calls to friends and family back in Africa, and can fly home in 8 hours on a discount airline. Educated and productive people are the biggest assets of most countries and, more so than ever, they can simply choose to walk away. Sachs talks about building medical schools in Africa so that doctors and nurses will be plentiful, not noting that the U.S. has jobs for perhaps 200,000 more doctors than U.S. medical schools are going to graduate in the next decade or so.
It is difficult to say what Singer’s The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty adds to Sachs’s 2005 book. The lasting benefits of foreign aid are difficult to find, yet rich countries and people continue to put hundreds of billions of dollars every year into foreign aid. Singer says that this makes us immoral cheapskates. However, the kinds of arguments that Singer put forth to prove that people should give more could easily be used to prove that people should give less. The grain and packaged foods that you paid to send to a poor country may result in the bankruptcy of a local farmer or food processor. The very possibility of foreign aid handouts may discourage businesses in poor countries from investing in agriculture, health care, and education. Would you start a private health clinic if you thought that Paul Farmer was going to show up next month and offer health care for free?
As we Americans are painfully discovering, it may not be possible for per-capita income to grow unless people work harder or are better educated than previous generations. Given that there are only so many hours in the day and that we in one of the world’s richest countries have been unable to build a competent system of schools, that makes world poverty a tough challenge. Too tough, perhaps, to be substantially attacked from an office in Princeton, New Jersey.