Bryan Caplan  

Traditional Third World Elites: A Qualified Defense

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My parents and teachers raised me to despise traditional Third World elites - not kleptocrats like Mobutu or Marcos, who were barely on their radar, but anyone who lived well in the midst of poverty.  "The extremes of wealth and poverty!" they'd exclaim, and shake their heads in disgust.  They rarely explained how Third World elites ought to change their behavior.  But they strongly insinuated that if desperately poor people lived within walking distance, no one was entitled to kick back and enjoy his riches. 

Since then, I've met many people who come from elite Third World families.  I spent a very pleasant week in Guatemala City with academic and business elites associated with the  Universidad Francisco Marroquin.  I gradually realized that my parents and teachers had been extremely unfair to traditional Third World elites.  In truth, these elites simply want what middle class Americans take for granted: To live a First World lifestyle in their native countries.  What's so wrong with that?

You might say that they're obliged to share their good fortune.  When Western tourists visit the Third World, however, they rarely give their money away to desperate strangers.  Why should Third World elites have stronger obligations?  A stranger's a stranger, even if he happens to reside nearby. 

If you insist that "all men are brothers," there's still no reason to single out Third World elites for shirking on their duties.  In fact, you could easily say that local elites with globally valuable skills are doing their poorer countrymen a favor simply by staying put.

This brings us to the one loophole in my parents' and teachers' condemnation: Emigration.  No one condemned Third World elites who got out of Dodge and moved to America.  It didn't matter whether they sent a dime back to their home countries.  As long as they kept a decent buffer zone between themselves and absolute poverty, they weren't expected to live the Sermon on the Mount.

Now you could object that traditional Third World elites earn their money by rent-seeking and corruption.  That's true to an extent, but the magnitude is easy to overstate.  These elites are usually their country's most skilled workers; without them, there wouldn't be much wealth for the reigning kleptocrats to steal.  Look at the achievements of the Cuban and Vietnamese diasporas.  In any case, it's important to distinguish the villainous elites who actually design and enforce their country's unjust policies from the merely unheroic elites who compromise with the status quo by paying bribes and collecting benefits.

You might reply that elites wield vast influence, so if their country has bad policies, it's their fault - at least collectively.  This might be true in some cases, but it's less clear than it seems.  Perhaps Third World elites want to adopt better policies, but populist pressures won't allow them to do so.  Absurd?  Take a look at what happens to Third World countries after any serious revolution, and watch things go from bad to worse. 

Lest I be misunderstood: I'm not claiming that traditional Third World elites are saints, or that they'd adopt sweeping libertarian reforms if given a chance.*  What I'm claiming, rather, is they're regular people.  If you wouldn't condemn middle class Americans who refuse to share their bounty with the poor, you probably shouldn't condemn their Third World counterparts, either. 

*  Though my friends in Guatemala probably would.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (14 to date)
gaddeswarup writes:

"In truth, these elites simply want what middle class Americans take for granted: To live a First World lifestyle in their native countries." And more, like servants. Recently I met an old classmate living in India. He is bored with paying bills and wants to employ a clerk to pay his bills. Look at how the salaries of the elites including the academics have increased in propotion to that of a labourer or driver. I know some members of the previous pay commision who are academics. And they have various subsidies; Delhi if full of subsidized restaurants for the government 'servants'. The problem is that (probably anywhere) people with a modicum of power have been using it better their benefits and in third world countries this is often at the expense of basic necessities of the poor. My impression is that status related spending ( as a proportion of theie salaries, sometimes it much more than salaries because a majority of them take bribes) is much more with the elites in India than in USA. I can go on.

agnostic writes:

Who says corruption and favoring the status quo is a bad thing? It's always, "compared to what viable alternative?" -- never Nirvana.

In Third World countries, the alternative is an anarchic scene straight out of Machiavelli's time and place. Violence would soar and most low-status people would be too freaked out of their minds to get anything productive done, assuming they survived.

By maintaining stability through corruption, they provide a safer world for the low-status to live in. (This is what North, Wallis, & Weingast refer to as the logic of a "natural state.")

Graeme writes:

Your definition of third world elites covers two groups of people:

1) Those who are rich because they have useful skills
2) Those who are rich because they are rent seekers or thugs.

Inherited wealth is orthogonal to this as it must have originated in some mix of these two.

An example of the latter would be Mugabe and his cronies: to you think there are any valuable skills in that lot? There are many like them in any third world country.

I live in a third world country and I am familiar with both groups.

The level of wealth in your definition of elites also covers a wide spectrum. There is a huge difference between a professional with a roughly middle class (by developed country standards) lifestyle, and a billionaire.

I do "insist that all men are brothers",: of course the main implication of that is that those physically far away from poverty should be doing more about it.

Kurbla writes:

"A stranger's a stranger, even if he happens to reside nearby. "

There is nothing wrong in internationalism, and I'm one for sure, but it shouldn't be based on denial that national communities are reality.

The most painful situation to realize that is war, when you suddenly see how stranger is willing to risk his life for you and your family. Even if he does not have to; people simply feel it is the right thing to do. There are many similar, just less drastic situations than war. But: if these strangers are willing to risk their lives for me, and I'm willing to accept their help - how can I pretend I have no moral obligation toward them? It doesn't have sense to me.

Strangers from other countries will stay indifferent in the case of attack on my country, flood, large forest fire ... So, although I still have some obligation toward strangers in other countries, it is smaller. They are not worse people, but we didn't formed such relation yet. Hopefully we will, gradually.

stuart writes:

I suppose I should be happy to discover that I'm not a moral monster for having been born in a poor country.

I still have a lower standard of living than working class Americans whose only though about me is how to keep me out of the country.

I was lucky to be born middle class in a poor country, but not nearly as lucky as 99% of all Americans, it never occured to me that I was being judged by some of them...

Grant Gould writes:

I think that most people explicitly or implicitly accept a maxim something like: A person who lives very differently from those around him is probably up to something.

Distasteful and populist though it may be, that point rings doubly for defenders of free markets. The fundamental truth of free markets is that to get rich, you have to make other people better off -- generally a lot of people a lot better off. If you see someone who is rich and is surrounded by people who are not well off, it's definitely prima facie evidence that those aren't free-market riches. Hence a legitimate presumption of exploitation.

It's not a universal truth, but as Bryan himself said a few posts ago, "Obviously there are exceptions; but people in business can't afford to ignore what's generally true."

Pensatulla writes:

The elites need to encourage immigration. People are the first order of foreign aid, not money. They need to bring people in who will work with the well-off in developing countries as well as the poor, using a type of developmental leverage that can get these countries out of their ruts. That main rut being that immigrants to Third World countries are only taking away from the poor who are already there, rather than the immigrants generating more wealth for everyone. That's the poverty mindset that keeps them down.

claudio writes:

Ok, I understand this argument. Skilled people are part of the elite and skilled people could use the talent for rent-seeking or for profit-seeking.

So, what´s the problem with the 3rd World Elites (3WE)? You were in Guatemala and talked to a libertarian-valued elite (which correlates strongly with an "economic-skilled elite").

But why is Guatemala still a 3rd World country? I think we go back to your own ideas about irrational rationality. I would hypothesize that the degree of this kind of irrationality would be bigger among the members of 3WE. It´s just a superficial hypothesis, but I think that´s one of the problems we should understand better.

Best Wishes from Brazil


Allan Walstad writes:

Grant Gould:

If you see someone who is rich and is surrounded by people who are not well off, it's definitely prima facie evidence that those aren't free-market riches. Hence a legitimate presumption of exploitation.

Not well off by what standard? Back in the Industrial Revolution, some people got very rich while others were in bad enough shape to provide fodder for a whole book by Engels. But the fact is, the increased output of goods generated by the capitalists' productive investments was flowing to poor people who would not have had those goods previously. The case is most obvious with regard to textiles, where for some period of time the mass-produced goods were of lower quality than the hand-made, which is what the wealthy would have continued to buy for themselves.

I'm skeptical of the wealthy countries' ability to raise up the poor ones. Our best influence might be unintended, namely, serving as exemplars of what can be accomplished with the right institutions and cultural capital. There are poor countries; there are rich countries; there are countries that have risen up--and countries that have fallen back. What we need to concentrate on is not landing in that last category.

Deepak writes:

Here is one concrete example of third world elites causing problems : in the city I come from (Pune, India), "environmentalists" (almost always quite privileged elites) managed to shut down a cheap alternative to unreliable public transport because the vehicles that were used were more polluting - in itself an unprovable assertion. Note that the elites are not inconvenienced by this since they have cars.

So the mentality that causes the problem is to extrapolate from their own 'first-world' lives into the host country and demand actions that cause the rest of the people nothing but trouble.

Such examples abound in India.

Yancey Ward writes:

This is why judgment should be based on individual circumstances and not on class.

This part rang true:

As long as they kept a decent buffer zone between themselves and absolute poverty, they weren't expected to live the Sermon on the Mount.

There is, of course, a perfectly good reason this loophole exists. It is the difference between talk and action.

Steve Sailer writes:

The most obvious question to ask is: How can we keep American society from becoming more like Third World societies?

Jim Hobelman writes:
Richard Lynn gives the average IQ of Guatemala as 79.
stuart writes:

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