Poor Choices

Imagine a peasant living deep in the woods long ago. Because of his isolation, he must himself produce all he needs and is consequently living a life of subsistence. One day a nobleman comes upon the peasant's plot and makes him an offer: if the peasant will agree once a week to travel several miles to the nobleman's estate and clean his stables, the nobleman will provide the peasant every few months with some seeds and tools. The walk is long and the compensation meager, but after some consideration the peasant decides the offer is worth his while and accepts. Unenviable for the peasant, but fairly anodyne. The nobleman has literally made the peasant a crap offer, but the peasant expected to benefit from it and accepted. The nobleman is no saint, but he did increase the options available to the peasant.

Yet if you were to recast the tale with a Rwandan peasant and a large Western corporation, I suspect may expats I know here would castigate the company as being exploitative. The agreement is voluntary, sure, but the peasant has no other options and the rich company is unashamedly taking advantage of that.  Clearly the company is acting wrongly.

There are many different reasons one can hold such a position, some more defensible than others, but I worry the main reason is that rich people do not wish to acknowledge the uncomfortable truths revealed by the decisions poor people make. Poor people are not stupid, and know which alternative available to them will best improve their lot. Too often the rich reaction is to find the poor person's choice unpleasant, and with nary a thought as to the alternatives, decry whomever is providing it and seek to eliminate that choice--all for the exploited poor person, of course, who must now hope the second-best offer still stands.

If you don't like the options available to some poor person , there are two ways you can help:

  • Provide a better option yourself,
  • or give money to that poor person, either directly or indirectly.

Restricting choice is not the way to prosperity--unless maybe you're restricting the ways rich people can be "helpful" to the poor.