Monday, April 2, 2007

Are Some People Poor Because Other People Are Rich?

"In a world in which more than a billion people struggle to survive on the purchasing-power equivalent of less than $1 a day, there has to be a serious moral doubt about whether anyone should be a billionaire."

- Peter Singer, "Bioethics Professor" at Princeton University, quoted in the L.A. Times, 3/18/07

If you bought a typical house for $100,000 and spent much effort improving it so that it is now worth $200,000, did you make anyone poorer? Would you have a serious moral doubt about the new value of your house? Should your neighbors now be entitled to payments from you? If you answer "yes", then how would that have affected your decision to improve your property to begin with?

If this house happened to be in a neighborhood that, by luck, happened to become very desirable -- and increased its value to $1,000,000, would you then have serious moral doubts about the value of your property? Should you now be sending payments to people in other neighborhoods? If you answer "yes", then how would that affect the desirability of buying houses in areas with potential to improve?

Replace "houses" with "businesses" or "stocks", increase the values, and you have billionaires. How has Bill Gates' ownership of Microsoft stock made anyone else poorer? And by what moral principle should he be obliged to send payments to other people?

To rephrase Professor Singer's insight:

"In a city where many people live in public housing, there has to be serious doubt about whether anyone should own a house."

"In a city where many people use public transportation, there has to be serious doubt about whether anyone should own a car."

"In a city where many people are miserable, there has to be serious doubt about whether anyone should be happy."

2 comments:

Lexcen said...

I have a lot of respect for Peter Singer. I think the experiment in redistributing wealth, that is making everyone equally poor was tried in Russia by Stalin. Needless to say, this experiment failed.

Johnm said...

Given Peter Singers main claim to fame, I wonder if he wants to redistribute money to all the higher primates that live below the $1/day threshold.