Angus Deaton wonders whether he should have spent so much time studying other country’s poverty

International development aid is based on the Robin Hood principle: take from the rich and give to the poor.

…A more formal term for the Robin Hood principle is “cosmopolitan prioritarianism,” an ethical rule that says we should think of everyone in the world in the same way, no matter where they live, and then focus help where it helps the most.

…I have thought about and tried to measure global poverty for many years, and this guide has always seemed broadly right. But I currently find myself feeling increasingly unsure about it. Both facts and ethics pose problems.

…Citizenship comes with a set of rights and responsibilities that we do not share with those in other countries. Yet the “cosmopolitan” part of the ethical guideline ignores any special obligations we have toward our fellow citizens.

We can think about these rights and obligations as a kind of mutual insurance contract: We refuse to tolerate certain kinds of inequality for our fellow citizens, and each of us has a responsibility to help – and a right to expect help – in the face of collective threats. These responsibilities do not invalidate or override our responsibilities to those who are suffering elsewhere in the world, but they do mean that if we judge only by material need, we risk leaving out important considerations.

When citizens believe that the elite care more about those across the ocean than those across the train tracks, insurance has broken down, we divide into factions, and those who are left behind become angry and disillusioned with a politics that no longer serves them. We may not agree with the remedies that they seek, but we ignore their real grievances at their peril and ours.

That is recent Nobel Laureate Angus Deaton presumably reflecting on Trump, Brexit, far right parties, or possibly the Princeton economics faculty lunches.

I have a slightly different take: paying attention to inequality at home is good politics but not necessarily good ethics.

I’m not a nationalist, and I don’t agree that my moral obligation to the least fortunate is greater if that person happens to live just inside rather than outside my country’s border. To me, just because humanity has failed to make a global social contract doesn’t give the local contract more moral weight.

Now, to the extent my actions affect local people more than faraway ones, or my winning is tied to their losing, then I can see how my obligations to people at home rise. That might be a reasonable argument to make. But I also wouldn’t be surprised if my day-to-day actions as a voter, writer, or consumer affect the lives of someone in Afghanistan or China more than someone in Tennessee.

Nonetheless, we have the politics and the social contracts we have. The consequences of not sharing the gains and losses from globalization more equally are pretty apparent.  Looking back, it has been very hard for the losers from globalization to adjust.

It may have made better political sense to take a more gradualist approach to free trade (though not as gradulaist as our approach to free movement of labor). Or perhaps the support systems we have are ill equipped to help people make this adjustment. On this topic, this discussion between Harvard’s David Autor and GMU’s Russ Roberts was pretty fascinating.