What about Africa
"What about Africa?" (WaA) is an appeal to worse problems often used as a sort of counterargument to the idea of top-to-bottom wealth redistribution (TBWR) (i.e. the position that society should endeavor to reduce economic disparity by redistributing wealth from the top (the richest) to the bottom (the poorest) until such disparity is reduced to some acceptable level).
WaA argues that no American (or citizen of any other wealthy country, presumably) can argue in favor of TBWR unless that person is willing to donate much or all of their wealth to poor people in Africa, because from the perspective of poor Africans all Americans are rich. (This is typically phrased as "most Americans are in the top 1% worldwide", although this is only true for those making over
$50k $136k annually – a quite respectable salary – and may not be true for any given person engaging in discussion on the internet.)
WaA is a rhetorical attack which subtly distorts a number of aspects of reality in the hope of cornering TBWR advocates into an untenable position where they either must severely deplete their own resources (hopefully including the computer through which they are advocating TBWR) or else must feel guilty for not doing so.
It is essentially an attempt to shut down advocacy of certain ideas, via emotional appeals based on logical distortions, and thereby maintain the status quo.
Where "redistributionist" is the person arguing for TBWR and "Objector" is the person objecting to it, WaA has the following problems:
- Selective application: Objector only raises this claim where redistributionist is not rich. This implies an unequal burden, i.e. the redistributionist must empty their wallet before any rich people would need to contribute, rather than redistributing from the top (first) in order to reduce economic disparity.
- This further implies a principle that assistance must always come from the next rung up the latter, rather than coming from those with the most to spare. The principle of next-rung assistance merely tends to eliminate those in the middle while doing essentially nothing to reduce income inequality.
- It also implies no interest in preventing people from falling into poverty, since those who may be already on the edge of poverty are being told that they are solely responsible for helping those less well-off than they.
- This philosophy bears an interesting resemblance to the resource requirements for Medicaid and Social Security, where you have to be already "in the gutter" before they'll see if you qualify for a hand up; there's no interest whatsoever in helping to prevent you from ending up there in the first place (ambulances vs. guard rails).
- Subtle misrepresentation: The Objector claim that the redistributionist should donate their possessions to hypothetical starving Africans only fits the TBWR model if the entire world consists only of people no richer than the redistributionist in question. Under those circumstances, the TBWR position would be to help out, as this would be equivalent (for people of merely average wealth or less) to the aftermath of a disaster of unprecedented proportions.
- Appeal to worse problems: This argument is a specific form of the "how can you talk about Problem X when there is much worse Problem Y somewhere in the world?" argument. The Objector is saying that we can't complain about economic disparity in America when there is much worse economic disparity worldwide -- ignoring the fact that economic disparity in America is entirely a domestic political problem, while solving economic disparity worldwide would involve foreign intervention.
- Disregard for results: The objection that a policy of next-rung-up aid is far less effective at solving the problem is consistently ignored by Objector. The "what about Africa" mentality doesn't care about results; it just wants shame and status quo.
- False moral equivalence: Objectors may claim that that the "luxury" of having a computer is equivalent to Donald Trump having a private jet or John McCain having five houses.
- Where "you have a computer, therefore you are rich" is specifically raised as an objection in a discussion on the internet, this is clearly an attempt to take Pro-Taxer out of the dialogue. If Pro-Taxer sells their computer, then they will effectively be removed from that discussion.
- This is also increasingly untrue, as cheap computers are rapidly making their way into the most impoverished corners of the world.
- Disregard for relative need: Living at any tolerable level in America is much more expensive than doing so in a poorer country. Pro-Taxer might be rich in terms of absolute monetary wealth, but not at all rich in terms of buying power; see below.
See /debate for further discussion.
- "It only takes $34,000 a year, after taxes, to be among the richest 1% in the world. That's for each person living under the same roof, including children. (So a family of four, for example, needs to make $136,000.)" http://money.cnn.com/2012/01/04/news/economy/world_richest/index.htm
To be massaged into article form:
Someone in Africa with a herd of goats -- "rich" by the standards of her village, living in a nice grass hut with no commercial value, and owning less than $5 in local currency -- would be "poorer" than a panhandler on the corner of an American street, who might take in $20 a day to help feed his kids with high-fructose crap juice from the discount store and pay the rent on their unsafe piece of shit apartment... or pay off the corner cop to keep from being arrested for sleeping in a cardboard box in the alley.
The herdsman doesn't have to pay rent on her hut or buy groceries; she gets her water from a well, and can trade goat products for other needs. Sure, she has to live without air conditioning or medical care; I've done that too -- it's a hardship in a hot climate, no doubt, but not intolerable. I won't say I envy her, but I wouldn't say she's suffering either (specific circumstances aside)... but either way, I definitely wouldn't expect her (despite being "rich") to sell all of her goats and donate the proceeds to the starving children over in the next town.
Evidence: The Maasai of East Africa, a herding tribe who live without running water or electricity and reside in huts made of dung, are among the happiest people in the world (Diener & Seligman 2004, cited here). Oxfam has argued that the lifestyle of the Maasai should be embraced as a response to climate change because of their ability to farm in deserts and scrublands.
- Wikipedia: Whataboutism: a similar but not identical diversional tactic