Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Mindless Compassion

feelgoodism - n - an act motivated by compassion without regard to the help or harm to others that results; an act designed to make one feel good about oneself.

The dominant view in our western culture seems to be that fairness and compassion are among the ultimate virtues, and that freedom to make one's own decisions is not. In this view, any act allegedly intended to help people is given instant credibility while the results of such acts are marginalized or simply ignored. What matters is not results, but only the goal. When the goal is an egalitarian society, anything that brings our culture closer to that end can be justified. Any damage done to society by efforts to increase equality and fairness must be disregarded, or blamed on something else. The results of such mindless compassion are sometimes acknowledged but deliberately misrepresented. Poverty in Africa is a good example.

Myth: more money always solves problems

Spiegel Online Internation published the interivew "For God's Sake, Please Stop the Aid!" with James Shikwati in July 2005. The Kenyan economics expert James Shikwati, 35, says that aid to Africa does more harm than good. The avid proponent of globalization spoke with SPIEGEL about the disastrous effects of Western development policy in Africa, corrupt rulers, and the tendency to overstate the AIDS problem.

Through out the article the Der Spiegel interviewer just can't seem to accept the notion that good intentions could ever cause harm. The interviewer reflects a common sentiment among those in power today: the desire to do good outweighs the reality of the situation. Feelgoodism trumps the reality that great harm is being caused by aid policies. Another piece by James Shikwati explains in clear, logical, common sense terms how to fix the problem of grinding poverty in Africa. But feelgoodism trumps common sense, blinds the do-gooder, and often hurts more than it helps.

In what other areas do we see "more money" proposed as the solution to society's problems? Education, social welfare, government interference in the financial sector (including the bailout bill), and more. And do the results of this influx of funding match what we were told by the do-gooders to expect? Of course not!

In the 1970s the brilliant economist Milton Friedman narrated a TV miniseries titled The Power of the Market. Below is a ten minute segment on the results of welfare:

The war on poverty ironically is a war on prosperity. Ending poverty is not the goal of this war. It is about redistribution of wealth. Socialism is about the equal distribution of misery, not the elimination of it. No capitalist is pretending life can be made fair or that misery can be eradicated, but such things can be diminished. Political, religious, economic liberty and good laws are the main ingredients of this endeavor. Prosperity is the essential element of a successful economy. But prosperity must grow to exist. How does prosperity grow when those who earn or generate wealth discover they do not get to keep what they earn? How does making it impossible for a people (Africans) to become self-sufficient bring them out of poverty?

In our own nation we might ask if helping the poor is truly the goal of social aid why not exempt the poor from paying income taxes? Then again, one might ask, how does taxing income promote prosperity?

But feelgoodism isn't about common sense. It isn't about results. It isn't about asking questions or finding solutions. Feelgoodism works on the naive presumption that no harm can result from good intentions. It is about intentions. It is about getting credit for being compassionate. What "works" is defined by the degree of economic equality, not by the number of people rescued from poverty. If people are actually helped by these intentions, well that's good.

You cannot bring about prosperity by discouraging thrift. You cannot help small men by tearing down big men. You cannot strengthen the weak by weakening the strong. You cannot lift the wage-earner by pulling down the wage-payer. You cannot help the poor man by destroying the rich. You cannot keep out of trouble by spending more than your income. You cannot further the brotherhood of man by inciting class hatred. You cannot establish security on borrowed money. You cannot build character and courage by taking away men’s initiative and independence. You cannot help men permanently by doing for them what they could and should do for themselves.

-- William J. H. Boetcker

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