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 / Winter 2003 / Issue 33(originally published by Booz & Company)


Best Business Books 2003: Globalization

Our intuitive sense of right and wrong, he says, has not adapted to the fact of growing technological and economic interdependence. For example, the most influential work on justice written in 20th-century America, John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice, makes no mention of “the injustice of the extremes of wealth and poverty that exist between different societies.” What the world needs, says Singer, is “a sense that we really are one community, that we are people who recognize not only the force of prohibitions against killing each other but also the pull of obligations to assist one another.”

All this may sound like Singer’s warm-up for an antiglobalization sermon, but it isn’t. Instead, readers are treated to a short list of plausible proposals for altering the rules of the game to spread more of the benefits around. Despite his star status among those who excoriate the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund, and multinationals, Singer is no Noam Chomsky. For a professional ethicist, he adopts a refreshingly unmoralistic approach to problems like genocide and global warming. On the latter, he joins mainstream economists in advocating trade in pollution rights. Indeed, he admonishes leftists who find it distasteful to let rich polluters buy their way off the hook: “The point is not to punish nations with high emissions, but to produce the best outcome for the atmosphere.”

More surprisingly, Singer hints that globalization per se may not be an appropriate target for moral outrage. He hoists critics of the North American Free Trade Agreement on their own logical petard by pointing out that it is hypocritical to condemn the treaty for (supposedly) costing Americans millions of jobs when “any transfer of work from the United States to Mexico can be expected to raise the income of people who are, on average, much less well off than those U.S. workers who lose their jobs. Those who favor reducing poverty globally, rather than only in their own country, should see this as a good thing.” Such consistency is refreshing, if rare. So is Singer’s willingness to take facts on board that don’t necessarily square with his ideological convictions.

Is it really true that freer trade has made the poor poorer while enriching the rich? Singer skewers commonly cited but flawed U.N. statistics purportedly proving this to be the case. He cites more reliable data showing that the gap between the incomes of the rich and poor has narrowed more or less continually since the 1960s. Contending that “what matters is not inequality but the absolute living standards of the poor,” he reports that real incomes of the poor have doubled in the past four decades, largely because of spectacular growth in China. What’s more, he correctly emphasizes that income is only one indicator of well-being. The U.N.’s Human Development Index, he says, has risen consistently during the last four decades, “suggesting that the world’s poorest people have become better off overall in terms of income, life expectancy, and the amount of education they receive.”

Yet an appalling, if diminishing, fraction of the world’s population still subsists on little more than the amount an average American spends on the family pet. Most of those mired in extreme poverty live in Africa and south Asia, but their claim on Americans is nearly as great as if they lived next door, says Singer. “There are few strong grounds for giving preference to the interest of one’s fellow citizens, and none that can override the obligation that arises whenever we can, at little cost to ourselves, make an absolutely crucial difference to the well-being of another person in real need.” He argues that the U.S. should be less stingy when it comes to foreign aid, a fairly uncontroversial point given that the United States is virtually last among all rich nations even when private charity is counted. But the author wisely eschews rants like those of one prominent fellow ethicist who absurdly equates George Bush with Mao Tse Tung and the U.S. lack of generosity with “actively starving … millions of people” the way Mao did.

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