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Is There a Conflict Between Altruism and Economic Growth?

Is There a Conflict Between Altruism and Economic Growth?

Matt Zwolinski

Readers might be interested in a symposium that Boston Review is running on Peter Singer’s idea of “Effective Altruism.”

For those who aren’t familiar with that term, the basic idea is pretty simple. Singer has long argued that all of us as individuals have a moral obligation to help the poor. Effective Altruism simply adds to this that we should try to make sure we do the most good possible with the resources we give. There is now a whole movement built around this idea, which both encourages people to give and directs them to resources (like that help them give more effectively.

Effective Altruism seems hard to quarrel with. After all, if you point out that a particular charitable approach isn’t working – that it’s inefficient or producing unintended consequences or whatever – then proponents of Effective Altruism can simply respond that that isn’t the kind of thing they have in mind. They favor effective altruism. And effective altruism is pretty much good by definition!

Still, there are some doubters in the Boston Review bunch. Among them is the economist Daron Acemoglu, much loved by many libertarians for his book (with James Robinson), Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty.

Acemoglu’s response to Singer makes one point with which most readers of this blog will almost certainly agree – that “that economic development is the best way to lift millions out of poverty and improve their health, education, and access to public amenities.”

But is this any reason to reject Effective Altruism? If we lived in a zero-sum world, in which all the resources that went to altruistic causes didn’t support economic growth (but would have done so otherwise), then maybe. But Acemoglu offers no evidence that this is the case. He just sort of vaguely worries that it might be.

In a similar way, he expresses some concern that “[w]hen key services we expect from states are taken over by other entities, building trust in the state and developing state capacity in other crucial areas may become harder.” Put aside for the moment the question of whether undermining “trust in the state” is a bug or a feature. Again, Acemoglu offers no evidence in support of this claim. Isn’t it just as plausible that a thriving civil society will make good governance easier?

I really liked Acemoglu’s book. And I think he’s right that politics has to play an important role in any effort to improve the condition of the world’s poor. Improving their condition means promoting economic growth, and promoting economic growth means altering political and economic policies to foster conditions of freedom. Like it or not, that’s a political game.
But do we really have to choose? Either economic growth or effective altruism?

I sure hope not.

*This article was previously on Bleeding Heart Libertarians.

Matt Zwolinski is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of San Diego, and co-director of the university’s Institute for Law and Philosophy. He has published close to twenty articles on the morality of sweatshop labor, price gouging, liberty and libertarian political theory. He is the editor of Arguing About Political Philosophy (Routledge, 2009), and is currently writing two books, one entitled Exploitation, Capitalism, and the State, and another called A Brief History of Libertarianism, with John Tomasi. He holds a PhD from the University of Arizona and serves as a member of the editorial board of the Business Ethics Quarterly.

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