What the Rich Owe Society

Monday, December 18, 2006

What the Rich Owe Society

As the calendar year winds down, many Americans write checks to charitable organizations. In the Sunday N.Y. Times magazine, Princeton University bioethics professor Peter Singer explores the issue of how much the rich should give.

At one point, Singer tells this story:
A few years ago, an African-American cabdriver taking me to the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington asked me if I worked at the bank.

I told him I did not but was speaking at a conference on development and aid. He then assumed that I was an economist, but when I said no, my training was in philosophy, he asked me if I thought the U.S. should give foreign aid. When I answered affirmatively, he replied that the government shouldn’t tax people in order to give their money to others. That, he thought, was robbery.

When I asked if he believed that the rich should voluntarily donate some of what they earn to the poor, he said that if someone had worked for his money, he wasn’t going to tell him what to do with it.

At that point we reached our destination. Had the journey continued, I might have tried to persuade him that people can earn large amounts only when they live under favorable social circumstances, and that they don’t create those circumstances by themselves.

I could have quoted Warren Buffett’s acknowledgment that society is responsible for much of his wealth. “If you stick me down in the middle of Bangladesh or Peru,” he said, “you’ll find out how much this talent is going to produce in the wrong kind of soil.”
You have to appreciate any article that manages to cite Hobbes, Kant and Bill Gates.

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