Thursday, February 14, 2008

Paternalism: Keeping Poor Folks Poor (But Getting A Warm Fuzzy Feeling Yourself)

Michael Knox Beran has written for City Journal a most illuminating, effectual denunciation of the paternalist spirit that so heavily influences (and makes counter-productive) the West's policy of "foreign aid." Beran is a lawyer, historian, contributing editor of City Journal, and the author of Forge of Empires: Three Revolutionary Statesmen and the World They Made (Lincoln, von Bismarck, and Tsar Alexander II); Jefferson’s Demons: Portrait of a Restless Mind; and The Last Patrician: Bobby Kennedy and the End of American Aristocracy.

But Beran's City Journal article "Hearts of Darkness" is a study taken very much from the present as he examines how narcissistic philosophies of paternalism, especially with their insistence on the proverbial "handout instead of a hand up," are not only failing miserably to help people, but are actually perpetuating the cycles of beggary, hunger, illness and oppression in which the world's poor are caught.

It is an extremely important piece for anyone who has a heart for the poor; that is, those for whom an effective solution to the suffering is more desirable than the ego satisfaction that comes from giving alms. As Beran puts it, "Paternalism persists as a psychology precisely because it satisfies the cravings of vanity in a way that real reform doesn’t. (Where people have learned to save themselves, they do not need saviors.)"

Beran primarily addresses Africa and how paternalism has tragically obstructed those ideas that could really do something for the long-term good of Africans. Instead of ending poverty, paternalism has institutionalized it. He reflects, for instance, on the vaunted promises of the United Nations’ Millennium Project which has been forceful in deriding the West's lack of generosity -- but which has been anything but forceful in improving Africa's economic growth and social development.

...We’ve heard this before. The “response of the West to Africa’s tragedy has been constant throughout the years,” observes NYU economist William Easterly. From Walt Rostow and John F. Kennedy in 1960 to Sachs and Tony Blair today, the message, Easterly says, has been the same: “Give more aid.” Assistance to Africa, he notes, “did indeed rise steadily throughout this period (tripling as a percent of African GDP from the 1970s to the 1990s),” yet African growth “remained stuck at zero percent per capita.”

All told, the West has given some $568 billion in foreign aid to Africa over the last four decades, with little to show for it. Between 1990 and 2001, the number of people in sub-Saharan Africa below what the UN calls the “extreme poverty line”—that is, living on less than $1 a day—increased from 227 million to 313 million, while their inflation-adjusted average daily income actually fell, from 62 cents to 60. At the same time, nearly half the continent’s population—46 percent—languishes in what the UN defines as ordinary poverty...

Where then do the answers lie to such overwhelming, seemingly endemic, woes?


Beran recalls for the reader the forces that brought Europe out of her medieval poverty.

"The rich nations developed laws and freedoms that enabled people to take their futures into their own hands. As Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto has argued in The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else, the world’s poorest countries remain poor in part because they lack legal protections—property rights foremost among them—that enable people in the West to tap the potential of “dead” capital and invest it in wealth-generating enterprises.

Kenyan economist James Shikwati agrees that handouts thwart the emergence of a culture of self-reliant problem solving and that they breed corruption to boot. When a drought afflicts Kenya, he says, Kenyan politicians “reflexively cry out for more help.” Their calls reach the United Nations World Food Program, a “massive agency of apparatchiks who are in the absurd situation of, on the one hand, being dedicated to the fight against hunger while, on the other hand, being faced with unemployment were hunger actually eliminated.” When the requested grain reaches Africa, a portion of it “often goes directly into the hands of unscrupulous politicians who then pass it on to their own tribe to boost their next election campaign.” Much of the rest of the grain gets dumped at less than fair market value. “Local farmers may as well put down their hoes right away,” Shikwati says. “No one can compete with the UN’s World Food Program.”

Care, one of the world’s largest charities, would agree. In August, it rejected some $45 million in U.S. government financing to distribute subsidized food in Africa, saying that the subsidies hurt African farmers. “If someone wants to help you, they shouldn’t do it by destroying the very thing that they’re trying to promote,” George Odo, a Care official, told the New York Times. The American government, however, has no plans to scrap the practice.

Shikwati’s observations have been borne out most recently in Ethiopia, where the government’s collectivist agriculture policies have unsurprisingly resulted in famine. Foreign nations duly sent aid, which, according to a July 2007 report in the New York Times, government soldiers duly squandered: “Soldiers skim sacks of grain, tins of vegetable oil and bricks of high-energy biscuits from food warehouses to sell at local markets. The cash is distributed among security officers and regional officers. . . . Then the remaining food is hauled out to rural areas where the soldiers divert part of it to local gunmen and informers as a reward for helping them fight the rebels. . . . To cover their tracks, the soldiers and government administrators who work with them tell the aid agencies that the food has spoiled, or has been stolen or hijacked by rebels.”

The cycle is vicious. The aid that ends up in corrupt rulers’ bank accounts enables them to stifle both free markets and the political and legal reforms that free markets need to operate efficiently. A recent Heritage Foundation study found that, of the 70 least-free countries on earth, nearly half have received U.S. foreign aid for more than three decades. The result is more poverty, more aid money, and more corruption...

Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina maintains that the relentless focus of the Africrats on the image of the pitiable, childish African distorts Africans’ idea of themselves and their potential. “There must be a change in mentality,” agrees Kenya’s Shikwati. “We have to stop perceiving ourselves as beggars.” At the same time, Africrat rhetoric that depicts the continent as “one giant crisis” (Wainaina’s phrase) obscures the progress that many Africans are making on their own. The African entrepreneurs who make up what Wainaina calls the “equity generation”—stock exchanges now thrive in Uganda, Kenya, Nigeria, and Ghana—are, by pursuing their own private interests, doing more to assure a prosperous African future than all the Africrats’ programs put together. President Bush has made subsidized medicine the centerpiece of his Africa policy; he might do better to invest in Africa’s rising entrepreneurs...

If the prosperous nations really want to help Africa, they need to resist the seductions of paternalism. They need to promote, not policies that will ensure that the continent remains a collection of fiefdoms dependent on subsidies and celebrity pity, but wealth-generating entrepreneurial efforts. They need to export, not a dated philosophy of mandarinism, but ideas that really can lift peoples and nations out of the lower depths—the ideas of Bacon, Hayek, de Soto, and The Wealth of Nations.

There's much more to reflect on in Beran's essay "Hearts of Darkness" and the issues involved are of the most critical nature. Therefore, I encourage you to read it carefully and then make a few copies to hand out to friends. And make sure that among those "friends" are your Senators and Congressmen. They represent an especially important audience to reach with these truths. Michael Knox Beran is pointing the way to common sense, fiscal responsibility and true compassion.