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The Caplan-Singer Debate: My Opening Statement
Here’s my opening statement from last week’s debate with Peter Singer on “Do the Rich Pay Their Fair Share?”
So I’m debating Peter Singer, a philosopher who’s already convinced me to give piles of money to charity. How did he convince me? With his famous Drowning Child thought experiment. He’s probably going to tell you the long version himself, so I’ll just give a quick recap. You’re walking along in your best clothes, and see a child drowning in a pool. You’re the only person in sight, and the only way for you to save him is to wade in and ruin your best clothes. Should you still save the child?
Almost everyone says, “Yes!,” and so do I. But does this thought experiment settle the question of, “Do the Rich Pay Their Fair Share?” that we’re debating? No.
As I’m confident Singer will agree, the point of his thought experiment is that almost everyone in countries like the United States consumes far more than they actually need. If ordinary First Worlders cut back, we could save the lives of many absolutely poor people, almost all of whom live in poor countries like Haiti, Bangladesh, and Congo. While it’s demagogically convenient to single out billionaires because 99.99% of their consumption is unnecessary, Singer’s thought experiment is almost as damning of middle-class Americans. After all, 90% of their consumption is unnecessary, too.
My point: Singling out the rich for falling short of a moral standard virtually no one satisfies is deeply unfair! It is classic scapegoating - and classic bait-and-switch: Singer argues for a moral obligation for First Worlders to help Third Worlders, and people twist it into a moral obligation for the global super-rich to help the global rich.
Admittedly, Singer’s conclusion is so sweeping that you should ask yourself: Is it really reasonable to morally condemn almost everyone in the First World?
Probably not, and here’s why. Singer’s thought experiment is telling if you only encounter a few Drowning Children per lifetime. In the real world, though, it’s all-consuming, because we effectively deal with Drowning Children every day. If effective charities exist – and they do – you haven’t fulfilled your moral duty until you’ve given away practically all of your surplus.
Which seems silly. A reductio ad absurdum. Virtually no one – even highly morally scrupulous people – actually does this. Not even Peter Singer himself. There is plausibly a moral duty to give away a modest fraction of your lifetime surplus. But a moral duty to give away the whole surplus?
We have a word for people who live far below their means in order to help strangers. And the word isn’t “fair.” It’s “heroic.”
Does this insight somehow entitle us to at least single out billionaires for moral condemnation? Quite the opposite. Hardly anyone chooses the heroic path of living far below their means in order to help strangers. But out of those who do, billionaires are vastly overrepresented. Several of the world’s top billionaires clearly qualify. Most of us don’t personally know anyone as heroic as Bill Gates or Warren Buffett.
What then is the point of singling out one of the most philanthropically heroic segments of the population as uniquely “unfair”? Let’s tweak to Singer’s famous thought experiment to see what’s afoot.
You’re walking along in your best clothes, and see a child playing happily next to a pool. Suddenly, a candidate for mayor shows up, shoves the child in the pool, then starts filming your reaction. “Why aren’t you saving the Drowning Child, you horrible selfish jerk?! I guess your fancy clothes matter more than his very life!” he screams. True, you have the ability to save the child. You should. But afterwards, be sure to point out that the child was drowning because the candidate with the camera pushed him in the pool, and that this demagogue’s motive is plainly to gain power by demonizing well-dressed innocent bystanders.
Is this a hypothetical anyone should care about? Absolutely, because the fancy clothes fit. As I explain in my book Open Borders: The Science and Ethics of Immigration, most of the global poor could easily lift themselves out of poverty by simply moving to the First World and getting a low-skilled job. Why don’t they? Because legal immigration is almost impossible, and illegal immigration is extremely expensive and dangerous. Yet we almost never blame ruling demagogues for depriving the global poor of their basic right to fix their own lives. Instead, we treat these demagogues as moral authorities while they scapegoat the rich.
Can open borders really be so potent? To repeat, I have a whole book, Open Borders: The Science and Ethics of Immigration, arguing yes. The starting premise is pretty much irrefutable. There is no doubt that, given permission to work in the First World, a typical adult from a poor country will almost instantly increase his earnings by a factor of 5, 10, or even 15. That’s not +15%. That +1500%. You can see this transformation with your own eyes. And it doesn’t just massively help the migrant; by the magic of remittances, migration massively helps anyone back home that the migrant cares about.
How is this possible? Because one and the same worker is many times more productive in the First World than the Third World. We don’t just have better technology and more capital. We have much better management. We have peace. And we have well-founded expectations of more of the same. “Why are Haitians more productive here than in Haiti?” Give me any reason why they wouldn’t be.
The only serious doubt about open borders is: Whether this process is scalable. Can we really move billions of people from the Third World to the First? Overnight, no. But over a few decades, absolutely. When the U.S. virtually closed its borders in 1924, it had about 30x as many inhabitants as when it was founded in 1789. If you look around, there is still room for vastly more. Wouldn’t open borders just kill the goose that lays the golden eggs? Well, nothing remotely close happened the last time.
But what if you just don’t care about foreigners? What if, Singer notwithstanding, your moral priority is blaming rich people in the First World for failing to help poorer fellow citizens? Even then, my variant on Singer’s hypothetical is highly relevant. Because besides causing massive foreign poverty with immigration restrictions, the demagogues who rule us also cause massive domestic poverty with housing regulation. (Many other bad policies, too, but the evil of housing regulation is unusually clear-cut). As I explain in my forthcoming Build, Baby, Build: The Science and Ethics of Housing Regulation, the construction industry in the U.S. and almost all other countries lives under draconian rules. Government makes it very hard to build tall buildings, multi-family buildings, and dense buildings. Overall, they practically treat the businesses that house us like criminals.
The result: Supply restriction has pushed housing prices up to about double the physical cost of production – and much more in desirable areas of the country. Since housing is expensive, doubling its price is a huge burden, especially on the poor. Needlessly high prices don’t just cause poverty directly; they deter the poor from moving to opportunity. And once again, instead of blaming demagogues as we should, we let demagogues shift the anger to rich bystanders.
“Do the rich pay their fair share?” Most debaters in my position would have focused on the fact that the rich pay a greatly disproportionate share of taxes. Indeed they do: In the U.S., the top quintile of earners pay 68% of all federal taxes. But it’s the larger context that makes moral denunciation of the rich so outrageous. Governments directly hinder people’s efforts to solve their own poverty problems. Not just a little. A lot. Then they point their demagogic fingers at the rich for selfishly keeping money they don’t need.
What, then, is my punchline? This: The rich are “guilty” of the same thing as virtually all of us, so please stop singling them for moral condemnation. Focus instead on your own philanthropy. If you’re going to morally condemn anyone, condemn the wide range of political leaders who callously cause severe poverty globally and domestically to make themselves popular. Most rich people aren’t exactly heroes, but even the politicians you most admire are probably bona fide villains.