Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Get On With It

You are walking with 4 adults past a pond. You notice 5 toddlers splashing about clearly about to drown. You rush and dive in and rescue a toddler. As you get out the water ready to fist bump the other co-rescuers, you notice only one other adult joined in. There are still 3 more in desperate need of help. Have you done your job? Can you just walk on?

This is a thought experiment Peter Singer uses when discussing the problem of looking at the worlds problems and deciding what to do. Many of them are very solvable. Jeffrey Sachs has done significant work on quantifying the cost of ending absolute poverty and argues that it is more a case of prioritisation than affordability. One of the things holding us back is that we look towards governments etc. to do the work. If a government does it, they can raise tax and thereby force everyone to pay their fair share.


I think fair is over-rated. I also think we don't need governments to do things if we live in countries with decent constitutions and enough individual liberty. Take the US for example. There are roughly 330 million American. So roughly 165 million Democrats and 165 million Republicans. There doesn't have to be agreement to solve some issues. Ignoring swing voters and those who don't care and making a thumb-sucky stab, there are about 100 million people who could solve certain issues (like poverty) if they wanted to. Clearly establishing institutions etc. is difficult but organisations like www.givedirectly.org have shown how easily you can just give money directly to the extremely poor at very little cost. Straight to their phones.

There is a sense of embarrassment at the state of the democracy in some of the leading countries of the free world. I don't think the achievement of the free world is effective government. I think the achievement is effective liberty. These 'embarrassing' countries also happen to be awesome countries. There are plenty of countries out there who would happily trade problems. While governments may seem like debate clubs with squabbling (and sometimes boxing) toddlers who tell fibs to get what they want, they don't actually matter that much. People complain about apathy with politics, but that is often because things are actually ok. When it comes to big ticket, clear questions like ending Apartheid or Scotland leaving the UK, people care. They understand the issue and vote. Otherwise we get confused. What is the issue? Who is representing us? Does my vote matter? I voted and nothing changed. If my vote doesn't seem to affect my life, why should I care? I see this apathy as a good sign in a way. It means the politicians matter less than the people. Low voter turnout in a way keeps government in their place. They can't overstate their importance if people don't care that much which of them are in charge.

For the most part, in a free country you can dive in and save a drowning toddler. The other option is of course to try form a government and discuss how to impose fairness on the other adults. Good luck with that. Rather just get on with it.
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