Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Farewell To Alms

Gregory Clark thinks the help we give other nations does worse than no good at all. He thinks it actively harms them. This is troubling as an American, certainly. It is much more troubling as a Christian.

Christians are used to their generosities doing no good at all. We rather expect that will be the case many times. It is ours to give, and then the matter is out of our control. We even accept, more reluctantly, that our gift may go to wrong purposes, that in the free will of the recipient are many of the evils common to mankind, and our nickel may go to the devil.

When we know that the gift will harm, however, does the picture change?

Let me make a distinction that will become important in the discussion. There may be a conflict here between what we are to do as Christians, and what we are to do as Americans. Both the right and the left, though in different ways, have their Americanism interpenetrate their Christianity, and their faith invade their picture of what it means to be American. Actually, the left and right do this the same way, just on different topics.

As I was reading Clark's A Farewell To Alms, I kept thinking, and sometimes saying to my wife, this is very troubling. I noted previously my willingness to believe writers too easily; a third of the way through I noticed him getting something wrong about Christian history, then drawing an unwarranted conclusion from linguistic information. I became more suspicious, and decided he had Jared Diamond envy, drawing widely but not always accurately from other fields to support his point.

Still, this only weakened his argument and made me cautious. It did not eliminate it, and by the time I had finished the book I thought he had made a strong case that the poorer nations of the world have had their poverty increased, not so much by our trade with them, but by our efforts to lift them and help them. It is not colonialism per se that has reduced their standard of living, but their cultural decisions - possibly quite justified in their previous contexts - in response to income from trade. Put briefly, more money turned into more people, rather than a higher income for a stable population. That is what humankind (not to mention plants and animals) has always done: used increased resources to increase the population and fill the environment. Traditionally, that is the best way to keep out competitors.

So now their babies don't die so much - a good thing; and they live longer because of medical things we can help them with - another good thing; and they can grow more food per acre, and transport their goods, and trade more freely - all good things. Which ends up with too many people and gradual downturn in income per person - very bad things.

Conservatives will dislike Clark because he doesn't think that free markets and good government will solve things for poor nations; liberals will dislike him because he thinks that the west is prosperous because of our culture and even our genes. He makes a pretty good case for both, though. His first chapter is a summary of the book, and I recommend it. In fact, I give the summary four stars, but the book only three.

What all this means for Christians, going on medical and agricultural missions to far places, I hope to discuss at length. I don't have an answer I am fully comfortable with. I think I am going to have to relook at Christian charity in general in order to get any farther.


terri said...

This sounds like a re-fashioning of some of what Thomas Malthus put forth.


Rather scary ideas.....both because of their nature and the thought that there may be a speck of truth to them.

It doesn't take going down this path very far before the spectre of eugenics and things like China's one-child policy seem to emerge as "positive" solutions to the problem....and that does seem creepy and eerie and troublesome.

I"m not sure what the answer is. I think of places like Ethiopia and Somalia and the famine they are experiencing and wonder what comes next. Once the crisis is over...things will go along just as they were before until the next famine. There won't be any improvements, or more prosperity, or solidarity, or better farming techniques.

These people live hand to mouth and always will because of their geographic location and the terrible political, cultural situation in which they live...in which the people running the show are the craziest psychopaths with the biggest guns.

What can the world do? Short of going in and completely taking over the country for their own good, what could possibly turn things around? And, taking over countries "for their own good" never turns out very well.

Humanity's success lies in the ability to control, at least partially, its circumstances. WE survive and proliferate because we learned how to farm and hunt and store up and develop vaccines and predict weather patterns and plan for the future. The more control we exert, the more easily we survive...because we have options and back-up plans and preparations.

Where there is no order....there is chaos and a dependence upon the whims of nature.

But do we really want to try and control everything?

If it were possible...would it be right?

And what would be the point of it all anyway, once we have constructed our Utopia/Dystopia? Would living in such a system be very appealing?

Yikes...I've rambled into all sorts of things now.

David Foster said...

"Which ends up with too many people and gradual downturn in income per person - very bad things."

This is unreconstructed Malthusianism, and ignores the fact that women tend to have fewer kids as their incomes & education levels increase...also, those additional people also create additional production, to the extent that productivity does not face hard limits via land, water resources, etc.

China and India (which does not, of course, have a 1-child policy) have both become far less impoverished in recent decades.

Der Hahn said...

From your summary I think his analysis of the problem is shallow. The corpse of Malthus pops up all of the place. It's more likely efforts to 'help' poor nations encourage cargo-cult behaviors that are good for attracting more outside aid but don't foster local development. That would account for rising income as the aid comes in, falling income when the aid dries up, and the unsustainablity because the learned behavior doesn't really influence aid flows.

Texan99 said...

I've been struggling for a long time with the question of what kind of help assists vs. what kind debilitates. At one extreme, it's obviously good to remove an unconscious man from a car that's about to burst into flames. At another, it's obviously a bad idea to give a heroin addict money for his next fix. I know there's a principle involving the moral hazard. You can bet with some safety that the unconscious man will regain consciousness and resume a responsible control of his life, assuming you don't find him in a similar fix every morning on the way to work. You could never assume the same of the addict, where any help that might be possible must take another form.

I suppose the only general guidance I've been able to work out for myself is that it's a poor idea to subsidize destructive behavior, so if you're going to offer aid, it ought to have some reasonable tendency to alter the behavior or the permanent circumstances. Feeding someone so that he can regain the strength to work, for instance, is different from feeding someone's idleness.

Those considerations become very complicated when you're dealing with the disabled, and of course it's easy to misjudge the extent to which people are truly disabled and the extent to which we are disabling them by our very treatment. And then it may be necessary to include people hopelessly trapped in horrific societies in the category of "disabled."

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Clark does emphatically believe that Malthus was correct up until 1800, and that the principles still apply unless they are overwritten by cultural differences found in few places. He would note that only in some places do people limit their number of children, and while this does indeed increase wealth per member, it is a cause, not a result, and therefore not reliable. The wealthy nations are European or their derivatives, or they are East Asian (including only part of China). They do the things necessary to overwrite Malthusian realities.

He acknowledges that there is some real overall economic growth in the poorer nations, but suggests that it is not as real as advertised, and is indeed sometimes the result of draconian government intrusion.

His is quite convinced that this can change only slowly - I am more hopeful.

karrde said...

I know not whether it meets the ideas presented here or not, but I do note that if foreign aid becomes big business, then local gangster (or corrupt officials...or both) will attempt to steal everything they can get their hands on.

The old saying goes that if you give a man a fish, he will eat for a day; if you teach him to fish, he will eat much longer.

How is that idea implemented on the tens-of-thousands-are-starving-in-Somalia level?

I don't know.

james said...

_The Road to Hell_ (Maren) addressed some of the problems with aid programs. Sometimes you got a perfect storm with careerist NGO agents on the ground and CYA in the home office, plans without reference to local preferences or climate variability, corrupt local authorities, and perverse incentives to the aid-ees. I gather perfect storms are not uncommon.

I suppose in theory you could get around some of these problems with care, but I still think that a pipeline of free stuff will tend to corrupt and distort normal incentives. And when you mate cultures where family loyalty trumps everything with institutional models (governments, businesses) where a leader is given responsibility on the understanding that he will exercise it impartially it isn't that surprising to find cousins at every desk.

I'm told that religious NGOs tend to work better. One claim was that they worked more closely and longer with the people, and the results were better targeted and a little more like friends helping out than Mr Moneybags distributing largesse.

Even so...

My parents were missionaries in Liberia; my father the business manager and accountant and treasurer (and other things from time to time). There were always people with problems, and many of the missionaries took some young lad under their wing and paid his school fees and helped out in various ways. It never turned out well. Dad took the position that he had to avoid every appearance of malfeasance, and denied everybody. After a while the mission started warning newcomers not to try to help out. Looking back, I'd say it was because the relationship was too asymmetric, though they probably phrased it in terms of fairness and jealousy.

That asymmetry issue has implications that scare me. A homeless shelter (one empties out near a bus stop I wait at, and I eavesdrop) seems convenient for providing services, but if I were homeless I'd not want to bring kids there. And it doesn't sound like an environment where fragile people are going to get better. So I ask myself what sort of environment would be more symmetric, and more benign for the fragile. And I instantly think that I have responsibilities to protect my children.

Lelia Rose Foreman said...

James: In what ways did helping some lad get an education not go well?
We sponsor two kids in a Christian school in Rwanda, and so I want to know if I am harming them. I don't see how.

james said...

If you give a man $20 you've made a friend for the day.
If you give him $20 every day for a year, he'll be fairly friendly.
If you stop, you've made an enemy.

I don't know what made it dramatic in Liberia, but what happened was that the recipient quickly began to feel entitled, and started making larger and larger requests. Some disputes got noisy. There may have been a time or two that things worked out well over the long term, but I don't remember any. (Of course there may have been some sampling bias here since the neighbors hear the noisy ones.)

Since your gifts are buffered through the local agents I think the impersonality of it works against drama and excessive expectations. There's the risk that the recipient will be singled out by less-lucky peers, but that risk you (and we--we donate similarly) have to take if you're going to help at all.

So the less personal donations probably work better here.

There doesn't seem to be a simple rule about personal vs impersonal giving. I heard of one group that was giving Christmas presents to children in families displaced by Katrina. The donors showed up with presents in hand, which cut the parents out of the loop completely.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Additional concerns. Whatever you send for free, you might destroy the local market for that good. Food, clothes, shelter - you might put the locals out of business, and where's the good of that?

I'm not saying don't do it - we also sponsor children. But...

I don't know what, actually.

David said...

The point is to give, and not out of excess but to the point where it makes you go without.

Nothing in Scripture says we are to give to achieve a particular outcome. The poor will be with us always, but we don't stop giving.

It is our giving that benefits ourselves. What people do with the gift is incidental.

“Jesus looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the offering box, and he saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. And he said, “Truly, I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.”
(Luke 21:1–4 ESV)

Assistant Village Idiot said...

David, I believe Jesus does emphasise the effect our giving will have on us, both in our encouraging community, and freeing us from worldly gods. But I was brought up sharply years ago by a nonbelieving friends who said "If I were a poor person, I think I'd prefer the kind of charity that get's me food, rather than the one that improves you spiritually." I wince. That is hard to answer.

Texan99 said...

If there was one thing Jesus seemed peculiarly uninterested in, it was whether the recipients of charity were satisfied with what they got or would have preferred something else. The point for Him was more that people with too much property should unload it for their own sakes, and quit worrying about where their next meal (or anyone else's next meal) was coming from. It's a standard I've never even remotely lived up to.

That's not to say that the general injunction to love thy neighbor doesn't cover the obligation to do what would most benefit the neighbor, and not just what will have the best spiritual effect upon ourselves.

I can't quite shake the feeling that the best kind of charity would be what leaves me and the object of my charity in as close as possible to the same financial position. Again, nothing I come close to beyond the small circle that includes my husband and me.