Tuesday, September 20, 2005


The War Within

Nick Schulz at Tech Central Station and Dennis Prager at Townhall write separately on two sides of the same coin, to borrow the expression from Schulz. Prager scrutinizes the acts of individuals, while Schulz explores the culpability of the collective, in the form of Government.

The coin Schulz speaks of is of Government Issue, with his specific thesis that “poverty is a direct result of poor governance.” Schulz refers to economist William Easterly and his new working paper, Center for Global Development, and highlights some startling statistics:
Easterly found that, "Over 1970-94, there is good data on public investment for 22 African countries. These countries' governments spent $342 billion on public investment. The donors gave these same countries' governments $187 billion in aid over this period. Unfortunately, the corresponding …increase in productivity… was zero."
It’s perhaps inevitable that Government spending, and particularly money directed at poverty, is measured in quantity and not quality of effective results. Nevertheless, as Schulz points out a question that may be obvious, but rarely uttered in the corridors of public policy:
If half a trillion dollars of investment and aid can't raise economic output, then what can?
The policies themselves appear to be the problem. Schulz derives the following conclusion from Easterly’s paper:
"The paper instead finds support for democratic institutions and economic freedom as determinants of growth that explain the occasions under which poor countries grow more slowly than rich countries."
It may seem obvious to remark that bad governments govern aid programs badly (as well as everything save self-enrichment), but the utter transparency of such a causal relationship seems beyond the capacity of public Diplomacy to address, much less resolve. “Why do we keep throwing good money after bad?” “Because it’s all about throwing the money, not where it goes or how it’s used.”

It’s the Government’s fault, man. (Just not how you think.)

Looking inward, Prager writes compellingly of his son’s learning about his “yetzer hara,” described as the Hebrew term for the innate “desire to do what is wrong.” In Jewish theology, Prager goes on to explain, human beings all share two inward, inborn drives, one towards what is good and the other towards what is bad. In Christianity, we most frequently identify this dynamic by means of referring to “man’s sinful nature,” and as Prager correctly observes, “both traditions believe that the greatest battle for a better world is usually with oneself.”

Prager’s thesis, his very philosophy of public criticism, derives from the Judeo Christian idea that “the road to a just society is paved by individual character development,” self improvement, and the eradication of bad or anti-social behaviors. Prager contrasts this “inner reconstruction” with some social activists, for whom "’social justice’ means social equality and social fairness. It is not fair that some people have more than others,” and who thus seek outer correction and reparation.

Schulz notes that in the Foreign Aid circles in which Easterly spent his career:
It has been widely believed that impoverished nations suffer from a self-perpetuating “poverty trap.” This poverty trap is almost impossible to escape without a big push from wealthy countries -- hence the logic of foreign aid.
Does foreign aid ever fix anything? Does it create financial incentives, or disincentives? Does it discourage or encourage free markets and economic activity (other than the feeding swarm over the aid money itself? How well is that money being spent?

Put another way, will public policy treat symptoms, or resolve root causes? And as the example of spending $500 million to no effect whatever, the reason people stay poor (and collections of people in a society stay poor) isn’t because they lack money or resources. They may very well remain poor because they either do not personally participate in an economy that will improve their standing, or there is no real economy in which to participate. If all they find are handouts, that’s all the incentive they’ll need to remain in dependence. (As long as the handouts are always there.)

All this, aside from the 800 Pound Gorilla that often lurks in the halls of Diplomatic and International Aid institutions, that most of the governments in the impoverished world suffer first and foremost from a poverty of personal ethics and integrity, Educated perhaps, but overindulged and too attracted to the creature comforts that come from the management of Foreign Aid. The same is just as true for the poverty societies within otherwise wealthy nations. Welfare is welfare, and gratuities in lieu of self improvement and self support doom the recipients to continued dependency.

Societies are vast collections of individual actions. Yes, many occur in great waves of behavior, lemming like, in which entire populations respond as one, making individual decisions towards incentives or away from disincentives. But it should not at all surprise if a system with great incentives and disincentives towards various behaviors actually results in behaviors following the best return. In fact, the very idea that a government program exists in a subtle way suggests that there is a need for it to exist, that it is a social good that it exists, and therefore an individual good to avail oneself of its benefit.

Social science, if it has any basis in the facts of reality and daily existence at all, affirms what Easterly hypothesizes and Schulz affirms: that “democratic institutions and economic freedom” are the best single determinates of whether a society will reduce poverty and improve the economic well-being of its people, many of them, if not most of them.

Prager concludes with a manifesto for outward activism that starts with personal change within:
Judeo-Christian values have always [been] understood [to mean] that the world is made better by making people better. On occasion, of course, a great moral cause must be joined. For example, it was religious Christians who led the fight to abolish slavery in Europe and America. But in general, the way to a better society is through the laborious and completely non-glamorous project of making each person more honest, more courageous, more decent, more likely to commit to another person in marriage, more likely to devote more time to raising children, and so on.
And societies that can advocate self-reliance and self-improvement, while creating incentives that reward individuals who would improve their lot, may quickly find that they harness a power beyond the merely financial. In contrast, societies that foster dependence, and tolerate or excuse destructive or hurtful behavior, tend to get more of the same in return. Expectations are low, and stay that way.

“The Lord helps those who help themselves,” is actually in neither the Old nor New Testaments, and neither is “when you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day, and when you teach him to fish, you feed him for a lifetime.” There’s no chance for a better world if we can’t raise better citizens.

We may at times seek comfort, or even a temporary salvation from our neighbors, or our Government. But in the end, that which we do once for ourselves we readily can do again. And that done rightly, instead of at the expense of those around us, helps in some small way encourage our neighbors to work that much harder themselves.
But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. (Matthew 6:33)
That is from the Bible, and if there's any with doubts about where to find some good guidance on how best to fight that war within, you'll find the answers in the pages of that Book. The Book.

UPDATE: For a somewhat different take on Poverty, and how we mistakenly think of it, check out John Schroeder's thoughts at Blogotional.

Links: Basil's Blog, Outside the Beltway, bRight & Early, Dawn Patrol at Mudville Gazette, Media Lies, Soldier's Angel Holly Aho

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