A Smug Op-ed from George W. Bush

by John Derbyshire

I wish George W. Bush would shut up and go away. He keeps reminding me what a fool I was ever to think that the man has a conservative bone in his body.

His Washington Post op-ed this morning illustrates the point. Titled “America’s global fight against AIDS,” it is filled with the kind of emoting, gaseous, feelgood cant about “hope” and “progress” that, if you want it, is in all-too-plentiful supply over at the liberal booth.

I firmly believe it has served American interests to help prevent the collapse of portions of the African continent.

Has it? How? Is any American more prosperous, secure, healthy, or happy because of our government’s efforts at AIDS relief in Africa? How would you demonstrate this? Is it not at least as possible that we have just stored up trouble for the future, as a person more familiar with Africa has written?

But this effort has done something more: It has demonstrated American character and beliefs. America is a certain kind of country, dedicated to the inherent and equal dignity of human lives. It is this ideal — rooted in faith and our founding — that gives purpose to our power. When we have a chance to do the right thing, we take it.

Wilsonian flim-flam. Americans, taken in the generality, are indeed distinctive in their character and beliefs. That distinctiveness has often expressed itself in efforts to improve the lives of people in far-away countries, as in the missionary endeavors to pre-communist China and elsewhere.

It is the most elementary error, though — and certainly one no conservative should make — to confuse private charity with state action. When governments are generous, they are generous with our money, after ripping it from our pockets by force of law.

If George W. Bush, or any other wealthy American, is moved by the plight of AIDS sufferers in Africa, he is free to discharge his feelings by acts of charity. If he were to do so, no-one — no, not even I — would begrudge him the smug self-satisfaction he displays in this op-ed.

There is, however, no virtue in a government official spending your money and mine unless for some reason demonstrably connected to our national interest. AIDS relief in Africa is not so connected, not in any way visible to me.

The subsidizing of expensive medications (the biggest part of our AIDS-relief effort, though not all of it) in fact has long-term consequences more likely to be negative than positive. The high incidence of AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa is caused by customary practices there. What is needed is for people to change those customary practices. Instead, at a cost of billions to the U.S. taxpayer, we have made it possible for Africans to continue in their unhealthy, disease-spreading habits.

Perhaps the future of sub-Saharan Africa would be brighter if the people of that place changed some of their customs; but now, thanks to us, they don’t have to. (A similar point can be made about domestic AIDS-relief funding, currently around $20 billion a year.)

We have also burdened our own citizens with huge and growing costs — $7 billion in 2011 — that we shall not, ever, be able to curtail. (A point explained in this Foreign Affairs article, unfortunately subscription-only. That essay, by the way, will also disabuse you of any idea that our efforts on behalf of AIDS relief get us any leverage with recipient governments. The contrary is in fact the case: They get more leverage over us.)

Our desire to be seen as a good nation driven by noble and generous motives is indeed a part of our national character. It’s a thing every foreigner notices about us. I personally, when I first noticed it, found it very endearing. However, when that commendable desire leads to us becoming the welfare provider of last resort to all the world’s seven billion people, it has overstepped its proper bounds and needs to be reined in.

But, hey, George W. Bush feels real good about himself. What could be more important than that?