22 July 2008

The meanness of charity; the toughness of love.

Eric Falkenstein's blog has drawn my attention to an observation on the human condition by Walter Bagehot that I had not previously heard, though I had been growing towards a personal sense of it:

" The most melancholy of human reflections, perhaps, is that, on the whole, it is a question whether the benevolence of mankind does most good or harm."

The way Falkenstein paraphrases it is "that charity does more harm than good." He observes that giving someone something does not help them pull themselves out of their bad circumstances to become self reliant, it rather appears to just increase their dependency. This is his little riff on the mutual interdependence of western feelgood third world giving and the third world "cargo cult" mentality.

It can take a long long time to break this cycle, and sometimes it persists in perpetuity (see Untouchables). In Australia the insidious effects of this mutually self supporting vicious circle have seen the perpetuation of the appalling social deprivation from generation to generation in our aboriginal peoples because there has been a benevolent desire not to impose harsh medicine on an already dispossessed people. We have not loved them enough or been smart enough to provide them with some tough love. Hopefully this terrible 50 year plus cycle of charity and dependence has now been broken with the "Intervention" of 2007 and the emergence of leadership from the Noel Pearsons in indigenous politics to provide enough self belief to internally compel a change for the better in these communities.

It seems most forms of raw charity just make the giver feel good whilst making the receiver more dependant. This is not a startlingly new nor a difficult to understand observation, if you are genuinely interested in good outcomes for other people. It doesn't always seem to play well politically on the stump; but you can see it actually happening in your own children or in the kids you went to school with, if you care to look for it. The concept of "tough love" is an old, venerable and true one for humanity. And, though unpopular, and therefore, in western democracies, potentially imperilled, the centrality of tough love to good outcomes over time, needs to be re-asserted and reiterated as a treasure that our civilization passes on to us. Otherwise our worse selves, our superficial self-centred selves, get the better of us in the continual contest in our democracies between good policy and good politics.

Good government POLICY on climate change:

Do nothing.

Why? Because the cuurent policy prescriptions:

1. restrain poverty reducing economic development and spontaneously generated market solutions,
2. place huge power in the hands of an inhuman and inflexible centralised bureaucracy, and
3. seem likely to have no material effect on climate.


Good government POLITICS on climate change:
Be seen to do something.

Why? Because:

1. citizens want to feel less bad about living in prosperity when others aren't,
2. boffins can consolidate their influence on bureaucracy, and
3. politicians can perpetuate their hold on power.

And good politics nearly always beats good policy when they are in conflict in a democracy. The disturbing thing about the current zeitgeist on this is the amazing delusionary grandstanding and sanctimonious rectitude of the climate change true believers and their certainty that their prescriptions will work to save the planet.
There is a simple straddle on this apparent conflict between good politics and good policy, available to the conscience of a politician who suspects this climate alarmism is bunk, but also knows that being seen to act is politically essential: be seen to be doing something whilst actually doing nothing. This seems to be the actual end point of the current climate change policy postion of the Federal Government in Australia after all its self congratulatory posturing since it was elected last year, and in the Federal Opposition's tepid response. The danger though, as usual, is that the massively intrusive bureaucratic infrastructures, the concentration of power and the erosions of personal freedom that are the necessary by-products of these grand schemes, will be left in tact potentially forever and in any event long after the pointlessness of the government's prescriptions has finally dawned on the credulous voting public.

The tough love of neglect looks like a much better policy on global climate than the self indulgent charity of impoverishing ourselves by trying to reduce our carbon emissions. This seemingly benevolent intervention will likely create many more problems than it solves, but the main problems that this self indulgence fosters are its encroachments on human freedom and the perpetuation of hollow justifications for increasing government control over people's lives. I seem to recall that this is a theme that the great Vaclav Klaus of the Czech Republic has been promulgating recently. So I at least have some good company on this, even if this argument seems to be an unpopular and ill-regarded position by our current media and by our political masters.


1 comment:

Bill Kerr said...

I agree with your pro-Pearson meanness of charity analysis.

wrt the alleged threat of climate change I agree with the political side of your analysis but think that doing research, serious funding of alternative energy strategies and organising a proper, not hysterical debate would be better than doing nothing - ala Lomborg

You might be interested in John McCarthy's website if you haven't already seen it:
progress and its sustainability
"With the development of nuclear energy, it became possible to show that there are no apparent obstacles even to billion year sustainability"