The Life You Can Save

Wednesday, April 29th, 2009

Philip Greenspun reviews Peter Singer’s The Life You Can Save, which argues that it is our responsibility to provide sufficient aid to poor people in foreign countries so that nobody starves or dies:

The obvious objection to this argument is provided by Thomas Malthus (1766-1834), who predicted that human population growth would inevitably exceed growth in food production. Singer does not mention Malthus until page 121 (out of 173). Malthus is dismisssed in a couple of pages by noting that if everyone on Planet Earth became a vegetarian we would then have enough grain to feed everyone. [Not a refutation of Malthus because universal vegetarianism would yield a constant increase in calories available against an exponential increase in population.] Singer does not reference Gregory Clark, author of A Farewell to Alms, the most heavily researched exploration of Malthus and his applicability to the modern world (Clark analyzes data going back to the 12th Century in England). Much of Singer’s support for a cheerful economic outlook is provided by references to Jeffrey Sachs (see this weblog posting from 2006). Sachs is cited uncritically starting in the Preface and continuing throughout the book, as though Sachs had proved his assertion that if we guarantee every impoverished person on the planet free food, free housing, free education, and free health care, all currently poor countries will experience a development process comparable to Germany during the Industrial Revolution.

Neither Sachs nor Singer deals with the example populations that are in fact guaranteed all of these things, e.g., Saudi Arabians. The result of all of these guarantees in Saudi Arabia has been one of the world’s highest birthrates, not a boom in education or industry.

Singer, in asserting that there is enough food for everyone, no matter how many babies we produce, is not taking the long view. It may be that agricultural production is in a temporary boom due to the fact that we have been digging up coal and oil that required millions of years to form. Chemical fertilizer has been the source of much of the increased productivity of agricultural land and (1) it won’t be available forever, (2) it gives a constant, not exponential, increase in output. It might not be a moral act to help increase the long-term population of a country above the level that can be fed on naturally fertilized land. Singer does not mention the use of fertilizer or question how sustainable current levels of agricultural production are (nor does he note that we’ve already more or less proven that the world’s fisheries were not sustainable at prior levels).
Singer never does address the question of whether by helping to keep alive 1 poor person today, you would simply be creating 100 hungry mouths to feed some years down the road (by which time you might be dead, your survivors wouldn’t be so generous, and now 100 people would starve to death instead of 1). Let me repeat a couple of passages from my review of The End of Poverty:

One reason this 396-page book isn’t more convincing is that Sachs cannot come up with a single example of a country that has been lifted out of poverty by foreign aid. He talks about saving Russia with financial engineering, but Russia’s clever people were making jet fighters, atomic bombs, and helicopters long before they ever met Sachs. He talks about the Marshall Plan for post-WWII Germany, but Germany didn’t suffer from overpopulation and the lack of education that plague modern poor countries; investing in folks that had conquered France in six weeks probably did not seem very risky…

The most serious flaw with the book, in my opinion, is that Sachs fails to devote even one sentence to the modern fact that labor is mobile and global. Transportation and communication costs fall every decade. An ambitious, hard-working, intelligent, and well-educated person has never had an easier time moving from a poor country to a rich country. … If an African achieves the standards of a First World nurse, he or she can easily emigrate to Europe or the U.K. where such skills are in high demand. The emigre enjoys a much more comfortable lifestyle in the rich country, can make free voice calls to friends and family back in Africa, and can fly home in 8 hours on a discount airline. Educated and productive people are the biggest assets of most countries and, more so than ever, they can simply choose to walk away. Sachs talks about building medical schools in Africa so that doctors and nurses will be plentiful, not noting that the U.S. has jobs for perhaps 200,000 more doctors than U.S. medical schools are going to graduate in the next decade or so.

It is difficult to say what Singer’s The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty adds to Sachs’s 2005 book. The lasting benefits of foreign aid are difficult to find, yet rich countries and people continue to put hundreds of billions of dollars every year into foreign aid. Singer says that this makes us immoral cheapskates. However, the kinds of arguments that Singer put forth to prove that people should give more could easily be used to prove that people should give less. The grain and packaged foods that you paid to send to a poor country may result in the bankruptcy of a local farmer or food processor. The very possibility of foreign aid handouts may discourage businesses in poor countries from investing in agriculture, health care, and education. Would you start a private health clinic if you thought that Paul Farmer was going to show up next month and offer health care for free?

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