Ironies of Activism...
I'm still reading Bruce Bawer's While Europe Slept: How Radical Islam is Destroying the West from Within and finding that Bawer has remarkable insights on a number of issue, one of these being an insight into an especially pernicious side effect of Europe's generous social welfare system. In commenting on Europeans' bystander passivity, their tendency to stand aside and do nothing but watch during antisemitic attacks on Jews or gay-bashing of homosexuals, Bawer noted:
How to reconcile this kind of unresponsiveness -- this colossal lack of what Americans call civic responsibility -- with all the proud rhetoric about "solidarity" and "community" that fills Western European political speeches and newspaper editorials? Well, I realized quite a while back that this rhetoric, far from having anything to do with cultivating among citizens a feeling of mutual support and neighborliness, was, quite simply, welfare-state sloganeering. Western Europeans have been brought up to think of solidarity with one's fellow man not as something they have to attend to themselves but rather as something mediated through state bureaucracies. (Bawer, While Europe Slept, page 149)I recall a conversation, sometime around 1990, that I had with a Pakistani-British woman in a coffee shop in Tübingen, Germany. She was very critical of Britain's Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and argued that the British were becoming more conservative and thus more selfish, less concerned with community or with helping others. I politely disagreed with the argument that turning conservative meant that one was becoming more selfish, and I said that reliance upon the state might actually discourage individuals from personally acting to help others and therefore might tend to undermine community.
That was 17 years ago, and I've since had similar thoughts. Just yesterday, Michael Bauman and I exchanged emails on this point. I wrote first, sending a note of thanks for sending me some articles and books that he had authored:
As for the other books that you sent, previously, I've read everything that you wrote . . . and some things written by others. All were quite enlightening. I find myself more motivated to defend free markets as I grow older, so reading more about their defense is useful.Michael replied:
Just yesterday, I was telling my wife that the Korean protests against American beef were "irrational." Eventually, she saw my point -- especially when I pointed out how much more she was paying for Korean beef[, which is protected from a free market,] when the risk of mad cow disease from American beef was, roughly, one in one-hundred million.
I think you are quite right about the failures and foolishness of interventionist economics. It simply does not work. The closer you get to government control of a market, the closer you get to the poverty of places like North Korea, or the hyper-inflation we mentioned on your blog last week. I am continually astonished by the ignorance of Christians like Jim Wallis, who want to exercise compassion for the poor, but who don't know the first thing about how poverty is defeated or how wealth is created.On the point about misdirected compassion, I replied:
I think that the ethical intuition usually directs us to do something active to help the needy, whereas laissez-faire economics advises us to do nothing, counter-intuitive if anything is.Or so things seem to me, for with the years comes clear the irony of unintended consequences as we find ourselves living them out in our own lives.
The irony is that the social-welfare state trains its citizens to be passive. The moral intuition to help gets directed toward the state, which vicariously takes on the role of moral agent . . . but without the ability to enjoin responsibility on the part of those whom it 'helps.'