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Thought experiment: poverty and inequality without injustice

A small stone-age tribe lives undetected in a remote forest in your country. They live sustainably off the land by hunting and foraging. The forest provides the materials they need for shelter, simple clothing and tools.

Their society is relatively equal in material terms: the richest person, the middle-aged chief, has no more than ten times the wealth (tools, clothes, stored food) of the poorest, an up-and-coming teenage hunter.

Compared to even the poorest people living in industrialised societies, the members of the tribe are shockingly poor. Their clothing and tools are rudimentary but time-consuming to make. Their shelters have dirt floors. There is no metal. There are no shops or workshops or money. There are no roads or non-human means of transportation. There are no books – and of course no-one could read them if there were. They have fire for cooking, but no electricity, let alone electronics.

Overall, the health of the tribe is poor. There is malnutrition and some stunting. Most are hosts to parasitic worms. Maternal and child mortality are high. They may seem strong, but on average they die young. People rarely recover from severe illness or serious accidents.

One last piece of information: the tribe has had no contact with the outside world – none at all – for more than a thousand years. No outsiders have visited the remote, pristine valley where they live, and no-one who has left has ever returned.

Somehow, you discover the valley and observe their way of life.

Here are people far poorer than you and, it seems, suffering from their poverty. Leaving aside the question as to whether their culture should be left untouched and looking only at their poverty, my question is this: does justice demand that you (or your government) do something to help them?

I would argue that in this scenario it is probably desirable – there may even be a moral imperative – to offer help to the tribe, but that this imperative is not a question of justice.

It’s something more like grace, and we do everybody an injustice when we confuse the two.

See also:

Max Roser: defining global development
“Empirically sufficient and empirically necessary” – Lant Pritchett on economic growth as the (only) key to poverty reduction
Natura non facit sultum*: Lant Pritchett on poverty lines
Lant Pritchett on Poverty, Economic Growth and Charity
Recommendation: Rachel Glennerster on Poverty, Global Development, Randomised Controlled Trials and more
Podcast recommendation: Mark Rank and Russ Roberts on poverty in the US (Econtalk)
Will and Ariel Durant on Inequality, Redistribution, Revolution and the Nature of Society’s Wealth
Astonishing wealth inequality graphic
Russ Roberts on inequality and poverty
On inequality
Fish Forks: behavioural individuality among genetically identical fish…
Remember the name: Persistence of wealth through China’s revolutions
Harrison Bergeron: Kurt Vonnegut imagines true equality
Raj Chetty on return on investment for social programs
The haves and the have-laters

Little By Little 1: Raymond Briggs on 1940s Britain
Little By Little 2: Li Kunwa on indoor plumbing in 1980s China
Little By Little 3: Scarcity and Subsistence in rural Suffolk in the 1900s
Little By Little 4: Dolly Parton on the scar on her toes (rural poverty in 1950s Tennessee)
Not long ago; or, Little by little (5): Tyler Cowen on progress in living standards since 1900
Not long ago; or, Little by little (6): New York Tenement, 1889
Not long ago; or, Little by little (7): Fred Dibnah, Steeplejack – health and safety edition

I'd love to hear your thoughts and recommended resources...