Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Peter Singer, Round 2

Yesterday, I wrote out a series of responses in Facebook to the recent interview that D.J. Grothe did with Peter Singer on the Point of Inquiry podcast. I don't care to do a massive rehash of the Singer thing I already did the other day, but these comments seemed worth retaining.

To set it up, Singer was talking about his new book, "The Life You Can Save" (my god what a hideous website!). In the book, Singer (correctly) argues it is just as ethical to save the lives of people you don't know as it is saving ones you do know. He also says that we should all be giving a significant chunk of our incomes to charity because that will help save lives, and we have an obligation to do so, especially if we're relatively well off.

Now, "obligation", is a word I'm not particularly comfortable with, but I do regularly donate to charities that are important to me and I - like most individualist libertarians - believe strongly in the principle of MoneyMouthtm. Things that are worth doing are worth contributing to, either with money or directed effort. This is why I give to children's charities whenever possible, and support various arts & music fundraisers - and of course, contribute to increasing liberty in the US and around the world as much as I can (often in the form of evangelizing).

However, Singer is a preachy git.

He's also a terrible economist... This is rather unfortunate, since most of what he's preaching about could really use the help of a decent economist to understand why giving tons of money away is simply a waste most of the time. The reality is this: Charitable giving helps the people who are on the receiving end only in the short term. However, redirecting most of one's additional into capital ventures which increase the material wealth of the world would improve the lot of the poor (especially internationally) by providing them with jobs and increasingly cheaper/more widely available goods. This is a much better gift than simply throwing money at problems.

Keeping with the Christian theme for a moment, it comes down to giving a man a fish or teaching him how to catch his own. Charity can, of course, help provide the starter net.

As I was listening to the interview, a number of thoughts popped up. I wrote them down, and now they are collected here:

Sean Malone
Sean Malone
DJ Did you ever read my "rebuttal" from that article the other day?
Point of Inquiry
Point of Inquiry
Yes, we both did. Very interesting. What did you think of Singer's arguments in this interview about Christian hypocrisy and atheists working to end world poverty on nonreligious grounds?
Sean Malone
Sean Malone
Haven't checked it out yet I'm afraid - I will as soon as I get a free moment.

He seems to be taking a full-on altruistic view where anyone who has anything at all should give as much of it away as possible in order to support "the poor". This is not only untenable, but is ultimately disastrous. As I noted to some extent in my "rebuttal", Singer fails to grasp that the solution to poverty isn't actually charity (worse still, it's definitely not *forced* wealth redistribution - which he often advocates), but to produce more goods that the world needs in ever cheaper/more efficient ways.

The problem with things like world hunger is quite simply that there isn't enough food for everyone who needs it.

Giving all your money away doesn't solve that problem at all. People engaging in mutually profitable (read: sustainable) activities guided by the innovations made possible by Norman Bourlag and others like him solve that problem by producing more & better "stuff" that people need to survive for everyone.... Read More

Singer seems to just be advocating dragging everyone down.

This whole thing may deserve a more complete response - but one thought I do feel compelled to bring up is that off the top of my head I *can* think of an example of a Christian who embodies the principles Singer is pushing:

Mother Teresa.

It may be worth contrasting say, Hitchens' view of her, and the results of her consistency with what Singer is advocating.... Read More

But more generally - If people weren't hypocritical about the Christian position in this sense, than all you do is race to see who can be the poorest... I give you all my stuff, but then you're not poor anymore so you have to give away all your stuff to someone else, and god forbid you bother making MORE stuff and adding to wealth... Wealth is evil & poverty virtuous, remember? And so it goes until we're all back in dark-ages style living conditions - which is what M. Teresa created.

Merely shifting around the resources that are currently available fails as a solution to any world problem because it is always zero-sum.

Also made me think of this:

"And then there's your 'brother-love' morality. Why is it moral to serve others, but not yourself? If enjoyment is a value, why is it moral when experienced by others, but not by you? Why is it immoral to produce something of value and keep it for yourself, when it is moral for others who haven't earned it to accept it? If it's virtuous to give, isn't it then selfish to take?

Your acceptance of the code of selflessness has made you fear the man who has a dollar less than you because it makes you feel that that dollar is rightfully his. You hate the man with a dollar more than you because the dollar he's keeping is rightfully yours. Your code has made it impossible to know when to give and when to grab."... Read More

-Ayn Rand (speaking through John Galt)

*Everyone may now commence booing and hissing*

Most of what Singer has said that I've ever heard or read has been based on some pretty severe illiteracy of economic reality. Charity can be a wonderful thing to support those on the margins in the short term and can make some people's lives meaningfully better, and I fully support it provided that it's voluntary.

However, it's no solution to ... Read Morethe underlying problems.

Thomas Sowell & Walter Williams have extensive insight into the causes of poverty, Johan Norberg has a lot to say on why global free trade is one of the only ways to permanently help people in the 3rd world (see: and Robert P. Murphy would be one of the people anyone should talk to about economic issues as such. If you can have any of them on the PoI show to talk about this stuff, you might find their comments interesting - especially since they'd disagree with about 95% of what Peter Singer has to say in general (and they're all actually good economists).

Also, it may be worth noting that anecdotes about Bill Gates & Warren Buffet aside (no disrespect), speaking as a hardcore atheist: Religious people *do* give vastly more to charity than secular people overall, but the more interesting breakdown (to me), is that the big dividing line for charity tends to be that those who believe in individualism ... Read Moregive more than people who are more collectively oriented.

Contrary to the strawman presented to Singer about libertarians, it's exactly those people who believe in individual effort are also those who give the most to charity. There are quite a number of studies which show this trend - though they're almost always broken into "conservative" vs. "liberal" dichotomies. So-called "conservatives" tend to give something like 20-30% more on average. This is unsurprising to me. Part of it is the religious aspect and part of it is the focus on individualism, imo.

And finally:

In general, I have to say I'm a bit annoyed by your reference to Singer's arguments as "iron-clad". They're not. Often, I've found them to be rather weak... Especially when the actual policies he advocates are often the cause of much poverty.

In this case, there's nothing wrong with giving to charity and helping people, it's quite laudable - and I find no fault in that. But it's only a surface level/temporary way to help people and doesn't chip away at the real problems, and often exacerbates the causes of poverty by diverting resources into black holes of bad economic thinking.... Read More

And I say that as an atheist who gives to charity regularly... And who doesn't waste any money at all on overpriced coffee :P
Yesterday at 5:29pm · Delete · Report

Upon further review, the Mother Teresa thing strikes me as the most interesting part. She actually is, to a great extent an embodiment of what Peter Singer is advocating.

Granted, his "chart" telling people what's an ethically acceptable (penances & rosaries) percentage of your income to give away each year is relatively modest - around 1-10% it seems for most income levels - the fact that he's chiding people, and the fact that he regularly advocates simply using the power of government force to take the money from people in order to redirecte it to causes he deems appropriate, makes me highly skeptical here.

In reality, he's the embodiment of something else Ayn Rand wrote as well. I can't remember the exact quote now, but she had pointed out that the religious are trying to get you to sacrifice your mind for "god" and statists want you to sacrifice yourself to other men. But only rarely do you hear that not sacrificing yourself at all is the proper choice.

Anyway, charities can do some good when well managed and directed at a specific aim. Red Cross does a great job, I've had good luck dealing with Children International as well, but what really makes a positive difference? Trade.

Lots, and lots, and lots of trade. Commercial interdependence and open markets helps to eliminate poverty all together - there's no reason that the levels of poverty in Namibia couldn't be exactly like they are in the United States. Get rid of the warlords and idiocy in their own governments, and allow them unfettered access to American markets and the game changes entirely. People have jobs, the world has more stuff, in return they can afford food and amenities like clean water & indoor plumbing.

Everybody wins. In the meantime, we need charity to fill the gaps... And that's great! I'm really not trying to dismiss or dog on charitable giving. If it's voluntary, I'm 100% in favor of the idea.

But unlike Peter Singer, I don't pretend that it's a real solution to poverty.

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