In most countries, most people are poor. In some countries, most people are rich. Adam Smith and other economists have long sought to explain why. Philosophers who work on global justice usually ignore what economists have to say, but nevertheless wonder if this disparity in wealth was caused by unjust activities. They wonder whether the persistence of extreme poverty and global inequality means that the citizens of rich countries owe some sort of compensation or redistribution. In an early draft of In Defense of Openness, Bas and I speculated that these philosophers are often animated by about 7 basic thought experiments, which they regard as analogous to the real world. Each of these thought experiments both A) asserts a cause for global poverty or inequality, and B) elicits
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In most countries, most people are poor. In some countries, most people are rich. Adam Smith and other economists have long sought to explain why. Philosophers who work on global justice usually ignore what economists have to say, but nevertheless wonder if this disparity in wealth was caused by unjust activities. They wonder whether the persistence of extreme poverty and global inequality means that the citizens of rich countries owe some sort of compensation or redistribution.
In an early draft of In Defense of Openness, Bas and I speculated that these philosophers are often animated by about 7 basic thought experiments, which they regard as analogous to the real world. Each of these thought experiments both A) asserts a cause for global poverty or inequality, and B) elicits certain intuitions about who owes what to whom. Consider these 3:
1. Great Grannie’s Misallocated Pie
The Thought Experiment: Great Grannie has placed a humungous pie in front of her 196 great-grandchildren. When she goes to divide up the pie, rather than giving each child an equal slice, she gives 80% of the pie to 20 of the children, leaving only 20% for the other 175. Suppose the children are mature enough to realize Great Grannie’s mistake. Ought they reallocate the pie more fairly?
The Intuition: Sure, it’s not the 20 grandkids’ fault that they got most of the pie. Great Granny messed up. But they should be nice and split the pie evenly with their cousins.
The Metaphor: The reason some countries are rich and others poor is that the rich countries lucked out and happen to have good resources, while the poor countries have bad resources. That’s not the rich countries’ fault, but they should be nice and split the resource pie evenly with the other countries.
2. Drowning Child
The Thought Experiment: You are walking along one day, when you see a child drowning in the pool. You can reach in and save the child, though doing so will cause you to drop $500, which will blow away in the wind. Are you obligated to save the child?
The Intuition: You should save the drowning child, even though you’ll lose $500.
The Metaphor: We the Rich ought to save the poor in the developing or undeveloped world. We as individuals, and we as entire countries put together, are like the person walking by holding $500. They the poor are like the drowning children. Just as we can easily reach in and save the kid, so we could easily reach out and save them, just by handing them some money.
3. Stolen Watch
The Thought Experiment: Upon his death, your racist grandfather bequeathed you his prized watch. However, you happen to know he stole this watch 60 years ago from his African neighbor, also now dead. You have every reason to think that had your grandfather not stolen the watch, your neighbor would have bequeathed it to his oldest grandchild. Should you return the watch to the grandchild?
The Intuition: You should “return” the watch to the oldest grandchild–you know it’s stolen property and you know he would have had it had your grandpa not been such a contemptible thief.
The Metaphor: The rich countries are rich at least in part because they stole from the poor countries. European countries colonized African, South American, and various Asian countries, raped, murdered, and enslaved their inhabitants, and plundered vast amounts of resources. Some of the European offshoots grew rich from such theft. We living in these countries today are not guilty of our ancestor’s sins, of course, but when we recognize that much of our wealth is stolen, we ought to give it back.
If you read much of the literature in global justice, you’ll see that at base, the authors end up making arguments that the real world is similar to Misallocated Pie, Drowning Child, or Stolen Watch. And if it is, it seems natural to conclude that we should engage in lots of redistribution from the rich countries to the poor–though, of course, it’s still an empirical question whether such redistribution will work or instead make things worse. But if it works, then we should! Easy peasy.
In In Defense of Openness, though, we go through the literature in development economics and economic history, and argue, in effect, that these three metaphors are misleading. (I say in effect because we didn’t end up putting some of these thought experiments in the book. We just outline others’ explicit arguments and then rebut them.) Resources do not explain why some countries are rich and others poor. Wealth has been created, not simply allocated. The world is not analogous to the drowning child situation. And the Stolen Watch gets the facts wrong about the effects of colonialism–as Adam Smith himself argued back in 1776. Indeed, instead of Stolen Watch, here’s a better thought experiment, one that better traces the actual effects:
Imperialist Queen: 400 years ago, the Queen of Spain sent her armies to murder, enslave, and pillage the Americas. The Queen received a large influx of gold, which she then wasted on fighting a large number of other wars. As a result, a great number of innocent people in the Americas died, and many of their descendants now live under extractive governments. It’s at least possible they would live under superior governments, and that current residents of those former colonies would now be much richer, had the Queen not conquered their ancestors. At the same time, the Queen taxed her subjects to pay for her wars, and forced many of them to die fighting those wars. The value of the raw materials they received from her empires was less than what they paid in taxes (or other costs). The Queen didn’t care; she was able to ignore her subjects’ interests and subjugate them. Also, as a result, most of the past and current citizens of Spain are also poorer than they otherwise would have been.