At Samizdata the other day, Natalie Solent wrote :
In Milton and Rose Friedman’s Free to Choose it says:
Of course, an egalitarian may protest that he is but a drop in the ocean, that he would be willing to redistribute the excess of his income over his concept of an equal income if everyone else were compelled to do the same. On one level this contention that compulsion would change matters is wrong – even if everyone else did the same, his specific contribution to the income of others would still be a drop in the ocean. His individual contribution would be just as large if he were the only contributor as if he were one of many. Indeed, it would be more valuable because he could target his contribution to go to the very worst off among those he regards as appropriate recipients.
I have a question for all the protestors planning to give up their time and money by going to Edinburgh for the G8 summit. Why is what you are doing better than just giving your spare money to the poor?
Later in comments to the same post she adds:
They could do both: go to Edinburgh and give their spare money away. That’s all their money above what is required for subsistence, of course, because by their own account the Third World is poor because they are rich and money transfer is the way to correct that situation.
I don’t find it unreasonable Solent to ask of leftists why we don’t adjust our personal behaviour to fit their principles. But to clear the ground I think we ought to set aside some issues. So Solent isn’t entitled to her assumption that those protestors are egalitarians under any strict definition of that term. They may, for example, simply people who believe that the depth of poverty that we seen in Africa ought to be responded to by those in the opulent North. Nor is she entitled to attribute to all of them the simple and unqualified claims that “the Third World is poor because they are rich” and “money transfer is the way to correct that situation.” They may, of course, believe the true claims that some Third-World poverty is attributable to the action of wealthy nations and that money transfer can be part of a solution to that problem. Solent, believing as she does that protectionist regimes like the CAP are partly responsible for Third World poverty can agree with the protestors on the first of those propositions, and, whilst she may disagree on the second, many of us wouldn’t. But I digress.
Many of the protestors will take the view that personal contributions are irrelevant to the basic structural inequalities of wealth and power that exist between North and South. Bono said something along these lines on the BBC last night. But even if giving away our money won’t solve the big problems, it might solve some problems and, as Solent says in her later comment, there’s no reason not to both give and campaign politically at the same time. Solent’s original post, though, seems motivated by the thought that the protestors are in some sense hypocrites , that if they are true to their principles they should give much more than they are giving. Which raises the question, how much should they give? “All their spare money” is Solent’s answer, which she says means “everything they own above basic subsistence”. A rather demanding requirement, but not to be dismissed just for that.
There is, in fact, a literature on this question: the question of how much we are obliged to sacrifice to bring about justice, or further morality, or the good, in a world that is very far from ideal. Jerry Cohen takes a fairly demanding view of what the socialist rich should do in his If You’re an Egalitarian How Come You’re So Rich? Another strand of thinking has been explored by Liam Murphy in a number of places (but see especially his paper The Demands of Beneficence [link to JSTOR —academic libraries only, probably] ). Murphy’s view is that we should see morality as a collective project. Suppose our moral aim is to relieve hunger, provide people with education and clean water etc, and put them into a position where they can take proper responsibility for their own fate. Murphy’s line of thinking suggests that we should work out what our share in that collective project is and then see ourselves as strictly obliged to do only what we would have to do if everyone did their part. (That doesn’t mean that we can’t do more, of course!)
How much would it cost to finance those urgent measures (hunger, education, clean water etc)? On one view I’ve read, it would take about 1 per cent of the GDP of the advanced economies. Of course,that’s assuming that we can find a way of transferring that money in an efficient manner so that those goals are achieved: no small problem . But it gives us a rough and ready estimate of how much Solent’s protestors are obliged to give on the Murphy view of things: either they must see to it that their state transfers 1 per cent of GDP for these purposes or they must privately give 1 per cent of their own income, or they must make up the difference between what the state gives and what it ought to give with their own private contributions. The British state does make some transfers (about 0.36 of GDP), but 1 per cent of an individual’s personal income is not a lot to ask anyway, so let’s take that as a benchmark reasonable contribution. A typical British academic might end up giving as little as the price of one mid-range CD every week! My guess is that most of those Edinburgh protestors give such an amount anyway, and that therefore Solent’s implied charge of hypocrisy is not just misconceived but also false.
Whilst I think that one should make good one’s share of the shortfall, given that the state isn’t doing what it ought to, I also believe that what we ought to do and what the state ought to do both flow from a general duty all of us have to aid to those suffering serious harm. My view is that the state should enforce that duty. Instead of giving my share, with no assurance that others would do theirs, I would thereby be assured that everyone was making a contribution: a collective project of preventing serious harm would not be undermined by free-riders and curmudgeons. So I’m happy both to pay, and to try to get the state to force me and others to pay. Of course, being a libertarian, Natalie Solent doesn’t believe that there are enforceable positive duties like the one I’ve just suggested. Unlike me, she doesn’t believe that the state has the right to force people to do good. It is up to her, she thinks, to do whatever good she chooses to do, uncoerced. But that doesn’t mean that others can’t raise questions about what she does choose to do, including, of course (and again), her own question: “Why is what you are doing better than just giving your spare money to the poor?”