Singer vs. Horatio Alger
By Bryan Caplan
Probably my favorite part of Ban van der Vossen and Jason Brennan’s new In Defense of Openness (Oxford University Press) is their critique of Peter Singer’s “drowning child” argument. Background: Philosopher Peter Singer famously argues that failing to donate your surplus income to help the global poor is morally equivalent to allowing a child to drown in a pond. Van der Vossen and Brennan, in contrast, argue that the global poor are perfectly able to pick themselves up by their own bootstraps… if the world’s governments will only let them.
If we’re going to have an analogy, perhaps the following would be better: the world’s poor are not like children in a pond, and they do not need to be pulled out by nobly motivated Westerners. They are people, perfectly capable of swimming and rescuing themselves, who are trapped in a pond surrounded by fences keeping them from escaping on their own initiative. What they need, what they really need, is for those fences to be taken down. They need the removal of the barriers that keep them in a position where they need help. Such an analogy would recommend protecting people’s productive rights, improving their access to markets around the world, and freeing their ability to migrate.
Alternately, instead of seeing the global poor as drowning children, we should see them as characters in a Horatio Alger novel. What they need is not charity but opportunity. And that’s great news, because charity has always been very scarce. Opportunity, in contrast, is like love – the more you offer, the more you have.