Our lives are easy – whether from the perspective of Jared Diamond’s book or our own lifetimes (my brother was out moving irrigation pipe in fifth grade and I was peddling around our village hawking newspapers – stories my children see as quite far from their experience). The deaths from the tsunami are hard to imagine, are horrible. The level of this human suffering seems beyond our ability to understand, to feel.
So, when a pompous and dry UN guy gets up and says we’re stingy, well, I’m likely to fall back on guilt. I could have put more into our Iraqi fund, I could be putting more into Tsunami relief. The charity to which our family devotes most of its energy is an ivory tower, designer one – setting up exchanges with Czech scholars, encouraging the teaching of Czech literature. But it does good and there is 0% overhead. You notice, these are all “I’s” – we think that way.
Okay, so I’m still on the defense but I am also not too crazy about my tax money’s “good deeds” being funneled through the UN conduit. We are always told to check out charities, to notice overhead – the UN’s percentage seems a bit too high for a good rating. (That’s part of the “I” – we notice things like that.)
But this post was prompted by one of those “good news we take for granted” moments – the “allies” Bush has lined up in his “coalition” are Australia, Japan, and India. And I observe, there he goes, being unilateral again. Australia’s like us – well, some would say “cocky” but we like to think we “honor indiviudualism.” But, let’s think about Japan & India.
Japan was devastated by the second world war and yet for much of our adult lives it has become a “giver”, not a “taker”–seldom a supplicant. Do we suspect that the post-WWII changes in political and economic framework was a factor? And India, built on the system the British imperialists left, has grown self-sufficient, despite Ehrlich’s predictions and because of research started forty years ago. And some gratitude can go to “the most important person you’ve probably never heard of before” – Norman Borlaug. If policy – at the UN, in India, in America – had been made on Ehrlich’s predictions, little help would be going to those devastated countries today. In addition, medicines are being sent that will do much more than those of fifty years ago because American pharmaceuticals spend money on research. (Yes, they are repaid handsomely – but sneering at them because they don’t give enough would come better from the lips of those who have found, indeed, cures to Aids or new antibiotics.)
We want to help; we should help – we are large and our living is easy. But we want ours to be a world in which others, too, help; one in which all have built infrastructures more ready to withstand what nature is inevitably going to deal out in surprising and terrible ways. (I’m not saying the high prices we pay for our meds or the taxes that go to Ag research should be counted as charities. I would argue they make bigger differences world-wide than most – probably any – UN programs.)
And so, the greatest relief to Tsumani sufferers is likely to come because we join forces, because we prioritize personally such relief, because other countries with a similar political system and similar economic systems have both benefited from American policies and research but have also benefited from their own enterprise. They, too, have become packs and not herds: they have achieved the ability to stand and after that comes the ability to offer a hand up. America and Australia are often criticized for independent self-reliance, even cockiness. But both gave aid early and strong to those beset countries. I suspect when Emerson–the big “I”–complained about the problems with charity he was thinking of people like Mr. Egeland, who judges others but has no perspective, who complains because not enough is given to him to let him be generous, that not enough is given in the ways he wants it given. I don’t think individualism, as Emerson saw it, makes one stingy. Help, he would argue, should not be be extracted by guilt but by both empathy and respect.
Individualism doesn’t mean you don’t care; it just means that you take personal responsibility, you make choices. In a tragedy like this, governments need to act. But, in general, an emphasis upon individual responsibility doesn’t seem a bad idea. We see what happens to countries that define giving in terms of the UN: Instapundit’s joke is uncomfortably close to reality when he wonders if the charity that arrives via Scrappelface isn’t going to beat that from France. The problem is that this remark, like so many of Scrappelface’s news stories, is uncomfortably close to reality. (Instapundit is now wavering – who to believe – Reuters or the French Foreign Service?)
And does that coalition tell us anything about what policies we might want to pursue in the future and how we can not stop or even always predict but in a real (if indirect) way be ready for the next tsumani or meteor or hurricane or earthquake or fire or volcano or blizzard or heat wave?
(And if you suspect this is a beat the dead horse post, you might google Ehrlich for interviews in the last few years. For instance.)