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Unformatted text preview: ing so steep a rate of tax , for he was well aware of
disincentiv e effects. But his estimate does undermine the argument that the rich are entitled to keep their
wealth because it is all a result of their hard work. I f Simon is right, that is true of at most 1 0 percent of it.
I n any case, ev en if we were to grant that people deserv e ev ery dollar they earn, that doesn’t answer the
question of what they should do with it. We might say that they hav e a right to spend it on lav ish parties,
priv ate jets and lux ury y achts, or, for that matter, to flush it down the toilet. But we could still think that for
them to do these things while others die from easily prev entable diseases is wrong. I n an article I wrote
more than three decades ago, at the time of a humanitarian emergency in what is now Bangladesh, I used
the ex ample of walking by a shallow pond and seeing a small child who has fallen in and appears to be in
danger of drowning. Ev en though we did nothing to cause the child to fall into the pond, almost ev ery one
agrees that if we can sav e the child at minimal inconv enience or trouble to ourselv es, we ought to do so.
Any thing else would be callous, indecent and, in a word, wrong. T he fact that in rescuing the child we may ,
for ex ample, ruin a new pair of shoes is not a good reason for allowing the child to drown. Similarly if for the
cost of a pair of shoes we can contribute to a health program in a dev eloping country that stands a good
chance of sav ing the life of a child, we ought to do so.
Perhaps, though, our obligation to help the poor is ev en stronger than this ex ample implies, for we are less
innocent than the passer- by who did nothing to cause the child to fall into the pond. T homas Pogge, a
philosopher at Columbia Univ ersity , has argued that at least some of our affluence comes at the ex pense of
the poor. He bases this claim not simply on the usual critique of the barriers that Europe and the United
States maintain against agricultural imports from dev eloping countries but also on less familiar aspects of
our trade with dev eloping countries. For ex ample, he points out that international corporations are willing
to make deals to buy natural resources from any gov ernment, no matter how it has come to power. T his
prov ides a huge financial incentiv e for groups to try to ov erthrow the ex isting gov ernment. Successful
rebels are rewarded by being able to sell off the nation’s oil, minerals or timber.
I n their dealings with corrupt dictators in dev eloping countries, Pogge asserts, international corporations
are morally no better than someone who knowingly buy s stolen goods — with the difference that the
international legal and political order recognizes the corporations, not as criminals in possession of stolen
goods but as the legal owners of the goods they hav e bought. T his situation is, of course, beneficial for the
industrial nations, because it enables us to obtain the raw materials we need to maintain our prosperity , but
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- Spring '11