World Welfare State

At at the city, state, or national levels we sometimes "help the poor" via initiatives to "develop" this or that region, but what we mostly have is "welfare" benefits that go directly to individuals.  After all, development funds have a poor track record, and are often diverted by corrupt officials, while direct benefits are the prototype of charity to help those less fortunate than ourselves.  At the international level, however, we mostly have "development aid", even though its track record is just as bad there.  Why don’t we give more benefits directly to the world’s poor? 

We do not need a strong world government to have a world welfare state – we just need those who want to help the poor to form to a common fund with a common system for distributing benefits.  Some minimal requirements, such as a world ID card, would be made on nations who wanted to let their citizens to get world welfare.  And a special level of international disgust could be reserved for nations that refused to let locals to get world welfare.  Yes this wouldn’t be easy, but why does no one even try? 

With a world welfare system donors would have to more directly face their choice between welfare at home and abroad.  Why don’t we first ensure everyone in the world at least gets a dollar a day, before we make sure locals don’t suffer with only basic cable channels? 

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  • Robin Brandt

    I am for it, sounds great!

  • http://blog.stevegilham.com Steve

    Never mind the bureaucratic nightmare that the proposed world ID scheme would inevitably be — short of having available the necessary loving slave caste to administer it — all the problems associated with welfare-addiction that haunt us in the developed world would be replicated tenfold and more.

    A common failure with such idealism is that it looks at slapping a band-aid over poverty, which is the initial ground state, rather than at how the exception — wealth — is created and maintained, and how to replicate that.

    Incentives do matter — and if we are proposing impractical schemes, better ones are those that would encourage the building and maintenance of primary infrastructure like road and rail links so that viable markets can flourish. This proposal, by contrast, is giving a man a fish every day, rather than equipping him to fish.

  • Jess Riedel

    I think the conventional wisdom is that developmental aid is much more productive, in the long run. Is there research suggesting otherwise?

    What do you think is the best existing charity, in terms of doing the most help per dollar for the neediest?

  • Mark

    You really want to know why no one does this? Because those shaking down the rich to get full cable access for the poor (or whatever their latest cause is) don’t really care about the poor – they’re after the status/power that comes with being able to do so, and the money they inevitably make on the side.

    Helping the world’s truly poor doesn’t achieve these goals.

  • http://www.kensharpe.net Ken Sharpe

    I agree with your point that we should help the destitute before the uncomfortable, but as people have mentioned, welfare wouldn’t work on that scale — it doesn’t work on any scale very well.

  • Tim Tyler

    Re: What do you think is the best existing charity, in terms of doing the most help per dollar for the neediest?

    Perhaps consider the links on my irrigation page.

  • Richard

    Robin,

    To answer your last question: the US government has significant obligations to its citizens. Through our elected representatives, we’ve decided that every American is entitled to a certain minimal standard of living, and have agreed to fund this through our taxes.

  • http://jamesdmiller.blogspot.com/ James Miller

    This would create a strong incentive for the very poor to have lots of children.

  • http://occludedsun.wordpress.com Caledonian

    To answer your last question: the US government has significant obligations to its citizens. Through our elected representatives, we’ve decided that every American is entitled to a certain minimal standard of living, and have agreed to fund this through our taxes.

    Thus demonstrating that democracy doesn’t work – it’s the system where everyone receives the government the majority deserves.

  • Caio

    I think this also points to a common bias of nationalism, where the poor in one’s own country matter more than much poorer people abroad. There are, of course, the issue that the federal government of a country isn’t in the best position to help the poor in another, and that a lot of aid money does get lost in corruption, but people sure as hell care more about an American who lost his job to outsourcing (and can who count on social security and a much better job market) than the Indian who’s going to be employed as a result. Does anyone find that morally justifiable?

  • michael vassar

    Nope Caledonian: Under our system the Iraqis receive the government the majority of Americans deserve. You don’t want to think too hard about what kind of government *they* deserve. Actually, we probably more or less saw it in action in Afghanistan before 9/11. Under that sort of government you PRAY for someone like Saddam and can’t even imagine something like the US so you model us as a country of weakling Saddams of the wrong ethnicity.

  • http://silasx.blogspot.com Silas

    Because the leaders of the countries where people will apply for international welfare, will lose a LOT of face with this? (I think this answer is what you had in mind, Robin.)

    Because the leaders of such countries can just tax off the aid anyway?

  • Ian C.

    You say the governments in these countries are corrupt, therefore we should bypass them and give aid directly to the citizens. But what can they do with cash in an environment of corruption anyway? Have it extorted by the local bobby? Can they start a business if someone can steal it and then bribe the police to leave them alone.

  • http://www.nancybuttons.com Nancy Lebovitz

    There’s already a system in place that does what you’re saying on a fairly large scale– it’s people working in sounder economies and sending money home.

    If you want more money sent to individual poor people in poor countries, a first step would be making economic migrants more welcome.

  • http://www.iphonefreak.com frelkins

    @Robin

    How about instead of world welfare, we guarantee henceforth all world citizens at birth have an account opened for them at the World Bank? This gives everyone — male and female alike, no matter what race, religion or ethnicity — equal access to the modern financial system outside their possibly corrupt & underprivileged locality.

    With that as a base, the Bank could then run micro-lending programs. Micro-lending has been quite successful and has proven its effectiveness. No one loses face or status under this plan.

    It does more than just guarantee minimum income — by attaching disenfranchised citizens to the global economy, it should help them create capital and use it more efficiently.

  • Carl Shulman

    Silas beat me to the fact that the aid will be taxed away: the government will know the exact amount to demand from each recipient. Of course, conventional aid is also taxed or stolen or compensated for by reducing government expenditures in the area, but cash is an easier and more attractive target. The most effective aid expenditures to help the poor have tended to be those where there is little incentive for governments to steal the aid, e.g. smallpox vaccines (the money spent on developing the vaccine cannot be stolen, the vaccines are not valuable to those already vaccinated, and the donors supplied enough vaccines to supply the entire population).

    Other means of offering aid that bypass theft by host governments include guest worker programs like Singapore’s, where wages are received outside the view and influence of the home country, and the development of technologies applicable to poor countries, e.g. cell phones, which have significantly improved well-being and growth rates in Africa.

  • Paul Gowder

    I really, really wish this blog would be a little more humble about areas (like global distributive justice) where there’s a massive academic literature… like there’s a simple, blogworthy answer, to all of this!

  • http://occludedsun.wordpress.com Caledonian

    Nope Caledonian: Under our system the Iraqis receive the government the majority of Americans deserve. You don’t want to think too hard about what kind of government *they* deserve.

    What’s truly pathetic about the US occupation is that Saddam was better at providing for the average person than the US puppet government. He at least managed to inhibit the terrorist factionalism that’s tearing the country apart.

    I’m sure various minority groups are actually better-off under the current system, as Saddam persecuted and oppressed them endlessly, but we don’t really care about them anyway, as demonstrated by our betrayal of them at the end of the first Gulf War.

    The real problem is that the ‘Iraqi people’ do not see themselves as a people and are not having to make the hard decisions about what sort of government they want. The smaller ethnic groups are ironically doing much better at creating semi-autonomous states for themselves out of the chaos.

  • anomdebus

    I once had a really weird idea. Keep in mind this is a thought experiment and nothing more.

    I wonder what would happen if the USA unilaterally granted US citizenship to everybody on Earth. My thinking was due to equal protection, the USA could not maintain its current level of welfare. In some ways, it would force the federal level of government to act more like it was at the founding of the republic. Also, it could engender good will toward the USA as people generally do not try to destroy something they have a stake in. It would also make free trade fait accompli (WRT to the historical USA entity). One obvious caveat is for a time I think there would need to be residency permits to keep everybody from clustering in the traditional USA boundaries.

  • http://brokensymmetry.typepad.com Michael F. Martin

    The problem is with forming partnerships. Good partnerships emerge out of consensus that is difficult and ephemeral. Language and cultural barriers are formidable obstacles. Especially — especially — when one starts off with an asymmetry in wealth. For example, in China it is considered perfectly polite to ask how much another earns annually. Could this be because everybody made the same amount until recently?

    But there are some rules that can be followed. There are some methods that tend to foster good partnership. One is that it is important to communicate before setting goals. Another is that there needs to be a feedback loop that includes negative feedback. Still another is that any partnership predicated on immuntable distinctions between different members of the partnership is going to be unstable. (Law firms have to make some associates partner and some partners have to retire or else the firm will disintegrate.) There are more…

  • http://joel.froese.com Joel Froese

    I think this is a wonderful idea. Certainly welfare dependency and other hazards are a serious issue, but I think the point Robin is trying to make (and that most of the commenters are missing) is that currently, most development aid never reaches its intended target; it is either stolen outright or squandered in the bureaucratic process of even the most well-intentioned NGO. A direct payment at least gets money into the hands (granted delivering this money in areas without a banking system would be a monumental challenge) of the suffering masses of the world to spend as wisely or foolishly as they wish.

  • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

    The choice is between funding development projects and giving individual aid. Most comments seem to apply equally to this choice for nationals or foreigners, but the question is why do we treat these two classes differently. To make sense of that you need to point to a difference between nationals and foreigners which can explain the difference in policy. Possible candidates include differences in how much we care, and differences in local corruption.

  • Unknown

    I vote in favor of the proposal.

  • Richard

    Robin,
    For the US govt. to give direct payments to large numbers foreign nationals would be an affront to the sovereignty of the recipient’s country. Other countries won’t generally tolerate that sort of thing except in times of national disaster (e.g., Myanmar). They’d be concerned that their people would start to feel more attached to their foreign paymasters than to their own government.

  • http://zbooks.blogspot.com Zubon

    To make sense of that you need to point to a difference between nationals and foreigners which can explain the difference in policy.

    Why not fall back to the simple “the more different you are from me, the more defective you are”? People who think differently than you are obviously wrong, so they need your paternalism to fix everything. Those people in that country do weird things like living in huts and under corrupt governments. We would not want to do that over here, so obviously they have bad ideas. Heck, they probably have bad preferences too, since they eat things that we consider pets or pests. They need to be more like us in whatever ways are most visually or viscerally compelling.

  • WTF
  • Tim Tyler

    Re: Most comments seem to apply equally to this choice for nationals or foreigners, but the question is why do we treat these two classes differently.

    Foreigners don’t get to vote in your elections. If you screw them over, they can’t vote you out of office.

  • Unnamed

    Here are three possible explanations for the lack of direct cash transfers to poor people abroad:

    1) Cash transfer programs with many recipients and a small payment per recipient are inefficient, in terms of administrative costs, because of the cost per recipient of running the program.

    2) Cash transfers are less beneficial than specific programs that provide goods & services because cash can’t be used all that effectively in the absence of well-functioning markets and institutions (because of corruption, the unavailability of some goods & services in the local market, the economies of scale and expertise that make development programs relatively efficient at providing goods and services, and so on).

    3) There’s just not enough foreign aid money to pay for a widespread welfare program. I don’t know if it’s accurate, but the first figure I could find puts total worldwide foreign aid at only $77 billion per year, which I’d guess is something like an order of magnitude smaller than what we’d need to do worldwide welfare. Even going country by country, I doubt that many poor countries have an incoming aid stream that is large enough and reliable enough to fund a national welfare program (and, if any countries do qualify, we’d have to check if the goals of their unusually generous donors would be met by a massive welfare program). Of course, this raises the question of why there is so little foreign aid in any form.

  • William Newman

    Paul Gowder: There may be a massive academic literature, but it seems to be intellectually firewalled from actual public discussion of politics. Throughout the entire years-long debate about repealing the US inheritance tax, I merrily read opinion pieces and entered into arguments. Commonly those arguments were based on the moral rightness of inheritances being substantially redistributed to people who had inherited their citizenship. That seems like a pretty natural place to expect references to intellectually respectable ways of justifying this. But of the moral-indignators, only one brought up a connection to anything academic: the veil-of-ignorance idea of Rawls. (And since I was engaging him in person, he soon discovered that the veil of ignorance idea is less of an obvious moral justification for the non-internationalist variant of socialism than his class at MIT had evidently led him to believe.)

    Would you like to recommend some pointers to some post-1945 literature (and ideally post-Civil-Rights-Act literature) on the subject? Ideally, to support your criticism of RH bringing up a philosophically half-baked critique of real-world policy, including at least one pointer which has a clearly recognizable connection to the moral arguments that people actually make in real-world politics?

    (I have been curious about this (in a cynically skeptical way) off and on for years, and today I’m actively curious. To quote myself commenting on another blog earlier today, “Someday I’d love to see some scholar trace the intellectual history of how the left built its firewall between inheriting nationality and owning jobs, on one side, and the classic criticisms of property rights on the other.”)

  • Floccina

    Amen, I have been saying that for years.

  • http://www.hopeanon.typepad.com Hopefully Anonymous

    How about the type of incentive pay Bloomberg experimented with in NY? Bonuses to further your education, your kids education, etc. In some countries we’d have to avoid reproductive choice incentive pay for religious reasons. May have to avoid female education incentive pay too. But I like incentive pay better than blind garunteed income.

    Unless the best economics shows blind garunteed income will get us better results (a safer, more productive, world), of course.

  • http://www.the-rathouse.com/Revivalist4.html Rafe Champion

    This is similar to the idea that welfare in the existing welfare states would be more effectively provided by a voluntary organisation, or organisations, funded by donations (in cash or kind, including personal services) from all the people who think it is ok to pay taxes to the governement to provide welfare.

    That would sort out the people who really want to help the poor from the people who are addicted to political activism.

  • http://www.duoism.org a Duoist

    How is such an idea not another example of love for ‘victimology’? Once again, this idea of a ‘world welfare state’ is postmodernism’s elevation of “helplessness” as the supreme virtue.

  • Romeo Stevens

    the problem isn’t money and has never been money. the problem is making people self sufficient. development programs that help out people in poor rural areas with agricultural education and financing of farm equipment/livestock have done well.
    If you supply the means to become self sufficient to a people and they don’t improve? not your problem anymore.
    teach a man to fish…if he refuses to learn? personally I’d kick him out of my society.

  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com/ TGGP

    Bruce Bueno de Mesquita explains why foreign aid is from government to government and who it’s real intended beneficiaries are here.

  • Cairn McDrum

    Where’s William Easterly when you need him? Has anyone checked out http://www.globalgiving.com. It perhaps offers a workable solution to (some of) Robin’s points.

  • http://shagbark.livejournal.com Phil Goetz

    I would guess that the poor folks here voted for direct payments rather than development schemes; and that the poor folk overseas would too, if they could.

    The question is interesting because it suggests that U.S. voters decided to distribute foreign aid thru development schemes because they “know” that that approach gives the best results; and did not choose the approach giving the best results for themselves. I think there is a common type of bias here. A pilot may “know” that, in a given situation, an autopilot is much less likely to crash than a pilot; and yet choose to turn the autopilot off if he is the pilot. I’ve heard people explain, about similar situations that I can’t now quite recall, that in a matter of life and death, they would choose the riskier option that gave them “control” over the less-risky option that did not give them control.

    The US constituency in favor of overseas aid may be different than the constituency in favor of welfare here. My recollection is that Americans overwhelmingly think we spend too much on foreign aid, so the forces keeping it in place are probably different from the forces keeping welfare in place.

  • kevin

    I’m all for it. It doesn’t make sense to help out people who are upper middle class by global standards just because they are closer to us. Its very myopic.

    The idea is kind of like microlending, but instead we just acknowledge that we aren’t going to get the money back. Couldn’t we just send a wire transfer to a poor person in Cambodia, or wherever?

  • kevin

    Also, i don’t think welfare dependency would be a major issue. Its unlikely that the lifestyle supported by such a global welfare state would be high enough that people would lose incentives to work hard and improve their lot. Since we basically ensure the poor in the US a warm bed, indoor plumbing and food, we are ensuring them a paradise compared to what our bodies evolved to expect (sleeping outside on rocky earth, regularly starving, fighting cave-bears, etc.). A global welfare state might ensure malaria medicine and a cup of rice, but not much more.

  • http://www.physics.ucsb.edu/People/person.php3?userid=mike Mike Blume

    How about the type of incentive pay Bloomberg experimented with in NY? Bonuses to further your education, your kids education, etc. In some countries we’d have to avoid reproductive choice incentive pay for religious reasons. May have to avoid female education incentive pay too. But I like incentive pay better than blind garunteed income.

    You’re imposing on them the idea that education is the right and proper solution to their problems, but do not wish to impose the idea that reproduction should be a choice, or that women should be as educated as men – why?

  • http://www.hopeanon.typepad.com Hopefully Anonymous

    Mike, it’s whatever we can get away with with regards to incentive pay. You’ve uncovered the infinite footnote problem of blog comments. I wasn’t able to add infinite nuancing footnotes to that comment.

  • turkey

    Because foreign nationals have a lower moral value than co-nationals.

  • satyam

    i want yo say that do u have any idea about third world nations. i belong it .so say whats idea about it . this is not a controversial matter this is a burning problem my friend. so tel what is the resuscitation say say say.how u can solve this problem.