In a previous post I looked at some of the reasons why rich people don’t give more money to poor people, and I assumed that the stories people tell themselves have a lot to do with it. Here’s a bit more about this.
The distant poor are the first to be removed from our stories. Archaic and morally dubious notions such as the “national family”, national solidarity etc. are advanced to justify this move. These notions may be linked to certain pragmatic arguments justifying the focus on the poor within our borders: poverty alleviation requires redistribution, redistribution requires a welfare state – adequate taxation and a strong government able to enforce redistributive programs – and there’s no such state on the global level. The merits of this argument are dubious: there are many ways to combat poverty beyond the national welfare state – international development aid, charity, an open borders policy etc.
Another pragmatic argument in favor of focussing on the poor in our own countries goes like this: it’s better for people to help others who are close by, because closeness comes with knowledge about the needs of those who should be helped and about the best ways of helping them. There are also problems with this argument: our poor compatriots are probably as distant to us as the poor in Africa; those who are close to the distant poor are probably poor as well and therefore unable to help - or at least will find it much harder to help compared to people in the rich parts of the world whose marginal utility of the next dollar of income is only a tiny fraction of the utility that the same dollar would provide to the distant poor.
Whatever the merits of these arguments, they help to explain why the distant poor are often removed from sight. The next step is to remove some of the non-distant poor as well. We don’t want to encourage begging, and that’s what we do when we give money to beggars. We want to make work more attractive than begging, and hence we shouldn’t give to beggars. We should even criminalize begging so as to encourage beggars to go find a job. That’s good for the beggars – at least in the long run – and for the rest of us as well because beggars may be a nuisance. Giving doesn’t just encourage begging and unemployment; it robs people of their agency, their self-reliance and their sense of responsibility. It traps them in dependence, and most of the time it encourages bad habits. How many beggars use their earnings to fuel their alcohol addiction? Never mind that alcohol may be the only thing that gives them some pleasure in life and that allows them to forget their misery, if only temporarily. And never mind that the same kind of paternalism is generally viewed as offensive when targeted at the non-poor.
But what about selection biases? Aren’t we more likely to give to some beggars and not to others? The old Mother Theresa like woman with the baby in her lap? The cripple showing off his amputated limbs? The clever beggar who has monopolized the busy intersection and who threatens competitors with violence? All in all, we’ll probably give to those who already get the most, and hence we don’t help the most needy. However, giving can take different forms, and handouts to beggars are just one option. If you’re worried about people abusing cash handouts, why not give them access to healthcare or food? If you’re worried about selection effects, why not make sure that everyone gets an equal share? And if you’re worried about dependency, why not give conditional aid: people only get cash or services when they prove that they are looking for a job, when their children attend school etc.
More posts in this series are here.