Saturday, November 9, 2013

Foreign Aid, Perception and Reality

I like Dylan Matthews' argument that we should actually give a really huge chunk of money to foreign aid -- maybe the 28% of the budget that Americans think we're giving. It looks like you can save the life of someone in another country with health interventions against AIDS, insecticide-treated bednets to prevent malaria, or deworming pills for under $5000 a year.  Devoting a big chunk of the federal budget to causes like this would be of enormous benefit to humanity, and that's what utilitarians like me care about.

I was thinking about why Americans think 28% of the budget is going to foreign aid when it's only 1%. I wonder if most Americans are categorizing foreign aid in the same way that pundits talking about the budget usually do. A huge portion of the federal budget is directed overseas -- in particular, to military spending. And a lot of military spending has gone to endeavors that could be confused with some kind of foreign aid, on a broad definition of the term -- nation-building endeavors alongside military intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan, for instance. Maybe that's part of why so many Americans think such a huge percentage goes to foreign aid.

Obviously this isn't anything like the aid Dylan supports. It'd be a real misfortune if opposition to excessive "foreign aid" was to expensive nation-building projects that operated alongside military operations, and it frightened politicians away from doing genuinely beneficial humanitarian work. 
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