What a juvenile argument! I cited this riposte when I was in high school. Nonetheless, looking back on it, I think it might be right. Here is a version from Steve Landsburg, and a while ago Steve Moore wrote it up in the WSJ. After all, if government action to redistribute income is morally required, in the meantime is not greater private charity morally required too?
There are plenty of redistributionist goals which do not require concerted collective action or threshold levels of contribution. One person’s giving can make a big difference, especially if that person is wealthy. You don’t have to be Bill Gates. I’ve seen estimates that a few hundred dollars of giving can save a life (that’s from one of those OUP redistributionist philosophy books, the name of which escapes me at the moment), and while I think that is an exaggeration, surely a few thousand dollars should do the trick, less if you give wisely. And you can do lots of good short of saving a life.
Maybe “it’s not fair” that one person should pony up now, but still the moral imperative of the giving, if sufficiently strong, might outweigh that consideration. We are, after all, ethical pluralists. Citing one argument against a giving obligation — “the unfairness of it all” — does not per se dismantle that obligation. You still can do a lot of good with the gift. And is not the obligation strong in the first place, precisely because the misery of the potential recipient is so extreme and attention-worthy?
Is it even more juvenile to mention that conservatives, on average, give more to charity than do (modern) liberals?
Karl Smith is irritated by the argument, but I don’t see that he offers a good response. In general the responses I read or hear to this argument show a lot of emotion and not a lot of recognition of the strongest versions of the claim. Even if this argument has a chance of truth of only 20 percent, that still should have force to alter behavior at the margin. “There is a twenty percent chance I am morally compelled to give” is a real nudge toward “I should give more now,” if only, say, giving a fifth of what the full argument requires. So “downgrade and dismiss” — a common rhetorical strategy — won’t work here. If the argument has any life at all, it should hang like a millstone around the neck of egalitarians.
The best response is to accept the argument and admit one’s partial moral inferiority: “The people who give more, yes, in some important ways they are better people than I am.”
Addendum: Bryan Caplan nails it.