Thank goodness it’s Friday–there must be another insipid Michael Gerson column to read! And indeed there is. This week, he’s complaining about mean, ol’ Fred’s remarks on government funding for AIDS in Africa:
While he is not an isolationist, he clearly is playing to isolationist sentiments.
It is now “isolationist” to oppose foreign aid for disease prevention on a continent where the United States has negligible interests, because apparently our resources are as infinite as the ever-multiplying “interests” that the Gersons of the world discover for us in every problem around the world. More than that, Gerson tells us, Fred has revealed his lack of “moral seriousness.” For Gerson, governing isn’t a matter of making choices and setting priorities in the American interest, but of unburdening his conscience about suffering on the other side of the world with someone else’s money. I can understand why Gerson is annoyed–this kind of foreign aid was one of his favourite administration policies–but the reasoning here is beyond laughable:
America is engaged in a high-stakes ideological struggle in Africa, where radicals and terrorists seek to fill the vacuum of failed and hopeless societies. Fighting disease and promoting development are important foreign policy tools in this struggle, which Thompson apparently does not appreciate or even understand.
Now the overwhelming bulk of the foreign aid in question goes to sub-Saharan and East African countries, where there are not actually very many of these “radicals and terrorists.” That doesn’t mean that there aren’t violent, brutal militias and governments, and it doesn’t mean that there isn’t political instability in some of these countries, but it does mean that the political woes of these countries do not figure in to any larger, much less “high-stakes,” ideological struggle. Uganda, one of the recipients of our current aid, suffers from a long-running insurgency in the north, but this is not connected to a broader “ideological struggle,” unless you assume that the “ideological struggle” is being waged everywhere on the planet and can be used to retroactively justify any do-gooding overseas that comes under reasonable scrutiny. If health-related foreign aid is a weapon in this “ideological struggle,” shouldn’t we at the very least be targeting it at countries that are more strategically significant? But no, Thompson must be engaged in some kind of “isolationism” because he doesn’t favour frittering away resources on what are frankly, from the perpsective of the American interest, low-priority issues.
Reading Gerson’s moral hectoring, you have to conclude that there is no logical limit to the outpouring of state-funded compassion that he would support, since to limit it would be to declare someone, somewhere, less of a priority for the U.S. government than someone else, and that would be evidence of a hardness of heart rather than responsible government. In trying to lay a guilt trip on Thompson for expressing what I have to assume is the view of a substantial number, if not a majority, of Republicans, Gerson reminds us why so many of us on the right are instinctively averse to foreign aid proposals: the arguments used to advance them are usually loaded down with this self-important moral preening that says Americans must be concerned with the problems of people on the other side of the planet and that they are necessarily shameful and despicable people if they prefer primarily to help their own. This is not simply an insulting way to make the argument, but it suggests a frankly deranged set of priorities in the one making the argument. Gerson, like Mrs. Jellyby of Bleak House, seems to be able to see nothing closer than Africa.
The requirements of charity do call us to help the sick and the poor (which Thompson never denied, but rather took for granted), but what Gerson is talking about is almost the opposite and negation of charity. Invoking the tradition in Christendom of public authorities providing for the poor, Gerson implicitly takes for granted that the United States government has the same obligation to provide for the poor of other continents that it may have for its own citizens, which suggests that he thinks that our government is the public authority for all the world. Abandoning persuasion, the redistributionist resorts to coercion to send money to whatever cause he believes is most deserving, and here Gerson is no different. This is his “heroic conservatism,” which does not conserve much of anything but fancies itself very heroic for wasting things that belong to other people. As sure as public money always tends to drive out private money, foreign aid spending, when it is not misappropriated by the receiving government, will tend to reduce and limit the extent of private philanthropy dedicated to a particular country or problem. It might just be that the public policy Gerson supports will ultimately hamper the development of private institutional and charitable support and so perpetuate dependency on this aid indefinitely. As with so many proposals of state support, the helping hand of government, even when offered in good faith and with the best of intentions, can have a long-term crippling effect on the recipients who are “benefiting” from the aid.
Update: James makes the much more cogent case for ths kind of aid on the grounds of promoting or preserving stability and social order in these countries. It still seems debatable to me that doing this is the U.S. government’s responsibility or that the stability of Uganda or other such African nations should be a priority of our government, but this is the only kind of argument for this aid that will persuade and it is the just about the only kind of argument for it that can be defended coherently. That said, Peter makes the good pragmatic case against the actual aid program that the government has. Before throwing money to corrupt governments, it would be wise to know whether the money will ever assist the people for whom it is being donated. Americans generally and conservatives in particular would have far fewer objections to foreign aid if there was much confidence that the money would not be wasted or stolen, and that it would accomplish the things that the government says that it will. In principle, containing the spread of disease strikes me as a far more useful and humane use of our resources than invading and occupying other countries that pose no threat to us, but there need to be cogent arguments as to why we should focus on one region rather than another and why our government is the one that should be doing this. Given the current state of the federal government’s finances, I’m not sure that we can afford to keep throwing good money after mostly bad on programs that are being minimally effective.