Idiotarians: Hating on the Poor

Apparently Paul Staines [1] is angry with the UK Government’s foreign aid budget, and has pulled a stupid stunt harassing old ladies.  To highlight the injustice of wealthy Briton’s being taxed to give aid to poor Indians, Paul tried to hijack a joint aid event.

Apparently India has a third of the world’s poor. Although precise numbers are hard to come by, if Wikipedia is to be believed several hundred million people live on less than a dollar a day, the international poverty line. The Indian Government spend some money on a space programme. In my view this is almost certainly a poor use of resources in such a poor economy. There is the possibility that a space programme has positive net spillovers fir India’s economy, given its relatively large IT sector, but I doubt it.

However, frankly, Paul’s position is silly on a number of levels. Conceptually, morally, and pragmatically, for a self-styled libertarian, and morally for someone

One of the primary driving forces behind the introduction of a space programme was national defence. India wanted missile technology to defend itself from Pakistan, and other aggressors, and a space programme, in part grew from this. The military is one of the few roles those on the extreme right seem to support. So that is Paul’s conceptual problem.

Substantiatively however, we have a more major problem. Paul seems to be arguing that if Indian peasants are taxed, which most libertarians would argue is akin to theft, and that money is spent on rockets and satellites then they need to have what little support they have withdrawn. Being so poor, and being so exploited, the work DFID are doing in India is providing these people with a level of autonomy and freedom which they would otherwise lack. Being ruled by terrible shits is not a strong argument in favour of abandonment.

Finally, pragmatically Paul’s plan seems somewhat dubious. I imagine an aim of his is to see India’s stupid Space Programme end. Only a concerted effort from the poor of India could topple what is now a very well connected interest group. As Robin Hanson points out, the poor don’t revolt, those that have recently become better off revolt. Continuing the work of the DFID, not stopping it, is the best way to end the Indian Space Programme.

Although I agree with Luis Enrique [2], that similar stunts are perhaps too easily lauded when “our” side does them, I’m not sure Paul’s (and it seems’ Old Holborn‘s) activities are even internally consistent on their own terms. A lot of aid is skimmed off, but a lot of aid work is also done directly with those in need. If Paul and Old Holborn like liberty and autonomy they should argue for more of DFID’s money to be spent locally, not that it should be scrapped.


[1] I’ve always liked the naming conventions of the Internet. In academic work people are referred to by Surname. Bloggers are either referred to either by their first name, i.e. Sunny, or by their psuedonym, i.e Unity.

Unless, that is, they are a blogger you don’t like. In which case you use their first name even where they prefer to be known by their pseudonym. It’s the blogging equivalent of calling George Osborne Gideon.

[2] If you’re reading this Luis, when do you finish your PhD so you can get a blog?

5 thoughts on “Idiotarians: Hating on the Poor

  1. Good post. Agree with much of it, though think the ‘why should poor people suffer cos their govt’s a bit crap?’ argument is the strongest.

    I do, however, the justification is slightly different in India. The reason for aid to many rural parts of India is not that the state chooses to prioritise its spend differently, meaning that we need to fill the gap, but that these rural parts are often simply beyond the effective reach of the Indian state. I’ve worked in (i.e. managed funding programme for but visited) bits of (tribal) Orissa (along with Bihar generally recognised as the poorest state) where there simply is no state infrastructure once you get beyond the town, and the only way to get to deliver any kind of ‘barefoot’ primary health is through indigenous, often incredibly brave and creative (and chaotic) NGOs.

    In many ways, this kind of place isn’t really India at all (of course there’s a long legacy of arms-reach colonial rule here but that’s for another time). For the Indian state to develop an effective primary service infrastructure for placesl ike this – and there are thousands and thousands of areas like it – needs investment on a scale massively beyond current aid/space programme trade off considerations, and realistically the only way forward – pending a massive Indian boom which might allow this – is through aid (much of which is indigenously funded anyway).

    Of course the libertarians are not going to get this, but then of course the level of isolation and poverty is unimaignable to most people here, and this is compounded by the dominant media coveage of India as emerging state, and the assumption that if there are scyscrapers in Mumbai then India must be capable of sorting out life for the 80%.

    1. You’re very right. But I do want to take libertarianism seriously as a political philosophy, even if libertarians themselves seem unable to.

      Considering it is libertarian’s main area of interest, they seem to have a very impoverished conception of the state, practically and historically.

      They don’t really get the process of state creation, of the usurpation of kinship and traditional forms of coercion and their replacement by bureaucratic centralised control (Charles Tilly is excellent, as in phenomenally good on this, Bin Wong is very good on the process from a Chinese/Asian perspective, recommended reading.). That is what China, India and many African states have spent the last 60 years doing, become states. Economic development is rarely separated from state formation.

      State penetration is very important in any social system beyond primitive agriculture, but noooooo, they aren’t interested in empirics, dull sloganeering is their forte.

  2. I don’t know anything about the specific case here, so I won’t comment on it, but in general I think that Mr Staines is on surer ground than you (caveat emptor: I have no idea who this guy is).

    One thing that struck me about the thread at LC was its emotional register. You reproduce it here: libertarians “hate the poor”. This may or may not be the case, but how effective is aid? Isn’t that the relevant question? There’s a lot of is-ought confusion going round. Just because aid *should* help the poor, doesn’t mean that it does.

    Think of the natural resource course. Your implicit assumption is that aid somehow functions differently. Pourqoui? Look at Egypt, a country in the news quite a bit recently. It receive huge amounts of aid from the US. Why? To buy its help in the War on Terror. Where did this aid go? It modernised the armed forces (to better enable them to pursue the policy goals that the aid bought, i.e. War on Terror related) and it lined the pockets of Mubarak and chums. Now, cynicism aside, perhaps this was a “good idea” from the perspective of US “national interest” (whatever that may be). But it certainly wasn’t something that served the interests of poor Egyptians–I think that much is self-evident.

    Obviously, this is only one example. Perhaps there are others in which aid was given for the right reasons and has achieved miraculous results, Oddly, nothing springs to mind. Perhaps you can suggest some. Evidence and/or theory pwns argumentum ad hominem, right?

    Here’s something to get you started–a study by the IMF. From the abstract:

    “We examine the effects of aid on growth in cross-sectional and panel data—after correcting for the possible bias that poorer (or stronger) growth may draw aid contributions to recipient countries. Even after this correction, we find little robust evidence of a positive (or negative) relationship between aid inflows into a country and its economic growth. We also find no evidence that aid works better in better policy or geographical environments, or that certain forms of aid work better than others. Our findings suggest that for aid to be effective in the future, the aid apparatus will have to be rethought.”

    Click to access subramanian0707.pdf

    Quelle surprise!

    Also, Bruce Bueno de Mesquita has done some interesting work modelling the political economy of aid.

    Examples here:

    Or Ch. 9 of his Principles text.

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