The Right Coast

June 16, 2004
Brian and Fidel
By Tom Smith

This may be a mistake, but I want to accept Brian's implicit challenge to anyone to disagree with Castro's dare to disagree with him about the culpability of "neo-liberal globalism." I think the difficulty here is how to structure the argument so that it's useful. I'm not sure how to do that. But a few points may be worth making.

First, I'm not sure what neo-liberal globalism is. I think it may be a fictional entity. If it means free, or relatively free trade, then I think the argument that free trade impoverishes is largely false. So that might be one point of disagreement -- what is the effect that relatively free trade with more developed countries has on poorer countries.

Second, and this point might be more philosophically interesting, is that of culpability for avoidable suffering in the third world (or whatever you want to call it). On a certain level, I think it's undeniable that a lot of people suffer in poor countries who could be helped if rich people such as ourselves gave them money. To take a personal example, as I never tire of telling people, I went to Peru last summer to spend a week in the rain forest with my family, and go on a midlife crisis mountaineering expedition. It was expensive. While in Lima, we saw lots of children, as young as four and five, living on the streets. Some literally lived in holes, and begged at nearby intersections. I didn't give them any money to speak of, though I sometimes bought little trinkets from them. When I got home I spent thousands of dollars for emergency care for my dog. I don't feel particularly bad about that, but I do at least wonder if I got it wrong.

There are many questions here. But let's just say, for argument's sake, that wealthy countries and people have an obligation to do significantly more than they are doing to help the poor, sick, and so on, people in places such as Peru. It hardly follows that capitalism, which is the cause of our wealth, is to be blamed either for the poverty of the poor, or the unwillingness of rich people to share more than they do. If people are not very altruistic toward distant strangers (and they are not) this is not caused by some economic system. It is rather a limitation imposed by human nature on what kind of economic systems will work. Of course, this view rejects various Marxist and other views about the dependence of what gets called human nature on economic facts, but I'm comfortable rejecting those views. So, rich people who do not share may be morally cupable (though that is a separate argument and not simple), but that culpability has nothing to do with having free markets, private property, and all the other stuff implied by capitalism.

If there is an implied claim that if only the US or most countries were socialist, there would be far fewer poor people and so much less suffering, well, that's an empirical claim that one can argue about, but I think it is not plausible at all. A slightly different tack to take might be to argue, as I think is plausible, that free markets are especially important in poor countries, where the margin of survival is much less. I think a strong argument can be made that markets are by far the most efficient and safest way to assure that food and other necessary goods get to the poorest people. I think whatever the record of socialism in Canada or whereever, it has been disastrous in Africa, Asia and South America, and its failure to work has resulted in much suffering. So the argument would be if you want to help the poor, promote free markets. Also ask people to be generous with the poor, but there you will run up against people's natural selfishness. This does not mean that rich people who are not as generous as they should be are not morally culpable. They are. But the evil of capitalism or the goodness of socialism does not follow from that.