Traditional Third World Elites: A Qualified Defense
By Bryan Caplan
My parents and teachers raised me to despise traditional Third World elites – not kleptocrats like Mobutu or Marcos, who were barely on their radar, but anyone who lived well in the midst of poverty. “The extremes of wealth and poverty!” they’d exclaim, and shake their heads in disgust. They rarely explained how Third World elites ought to change their behavior. But they strongly insinuated that if desperately poor people lived within walking distance, no one was entitled to kick back and enjoy his riches.
Since then, I’ve met many people who come from elite Third World families. I spent a very pleasant week in Guatemala City with academic and business elites associated with the Universidad Francisco Marroquin. I gradually realized that my parents and teachers had been extremely unfair to traditional Third World elites. In truth, these elites simply want what middle class Americans take for granted: To live a First World lifestyle in their native countries. What’s so wrong with that?
You might say that they’re obliged to share their good fortune. When Western tourists visit the Third World, however, they rarely give their money away to desperate strangers. Why should Third World elites have stronger obligations? A stranger’s a stranger, even if he happens to reside nearby.
If you insist that “all men are brothers,” there’s still no reason to single out Third World elites for shirking on their duties. In fact, you could easily say that local elites with globally valuable skills are doing their poorer countrymen a favor simply by staying put.
This brings us to the one loophole in my parents’ and teachers’ condemnation: Emigration. No one condemned Third World elites who got out of Dodge and moved to America. It didn’t matter whether they sent a dime back to their home countries. As long as they kept a decent buffer zone between themselves and absolute poverty, they weren’t expected to live the Sermon on the Mount.
Now you could object that traditional Third World elites earn their money by rent-seeking and corruption. That’s true to an extent, but the magnitude is easy to overstate. These elites are usually their country’s most skilled workers; without them, there wouldn’t be much wealth for the reigning kleptocrats to steal. Look at the achievements of the Cuban and Vietnamese diasporas. In any case, it’s important to distinguish the villainous elites who actually design and enforce their country’s unjust policies from the merely unheroic elites who compromise with the status quo by paying bribes and collecting benefits.
You might reply that elites wield vast influence, so if their country has bad policies, it’s their fault – at least collectively. This might be true in some cases, but it’s less clear than it seems. Perhaps Third World elites want to adopt better policies, but populist pressures won’t allow them to do so. Absurd? Take a look at what happens to Third World countries after any serious revolution, and watch things go from bad to worse.
Lest I be misunderstood: I’m not claiming that traditional Third World elites are saints, or that they’d adopt sweeping libertarian reforms if given a chance.* What I’m claiming, rather, is they’re regular people. If you wouldn’t condemn middle class Americans who refuse to share their bounty with the poor, you probably shouldn’t condemn their Third World counterparts, either.
* Though my friends in Guatemala probably would.