The Corner

Re: A Dash of Pessimism

Jonah:  My meaning was only “there are places way poorer.”  Not your “arguably slightly poorer” — way poorer.

At rank 203 out of 229, Haiti is in the 11th percentile. To put it another way, one country in nine is as poor as, or poorer than, Haiti. If one person in nine is shorter than me, I’m not that short. As for “arguably slightly poorer”: with Haiti at per capita GDP $1,300, I think Eritrea at $700 and Burundi at $300 would give you an argument.

Therefore …what? American culture isn’t transformative? It’s only transformative on certain groups? What’s the point?

The point is that the blithe faith in the transformative power of American culture implied in your column, needs a lot of qualifying; or, if not qualified, may lead to bad policy. That American culture transformed this group, does not mean it will transform that group; that it transformed in 1910 does not mean it will transform in 2010. We are conservatives; we should be cautious about these things, not airily optimistic.

As for the culture stuff: arguments from culture are really circular. Culture is just customary collective behavior. If I ask: “Why do people in this place behave in this way?” and you reply, “Because of their culture,” you are asserting that they behave in this way because that’s how they behave. “Culture” is a sort of phlogiston or luminiferous æther that sounds as if it’s explaining something, but actually isn’t. I’d advance it as a good candidate for a word that should be banned from serious social and political discussions.

Last, the assertion that this argument about aid and development resides solely in the “realm of good manners and social taboos not in the realm of fact” strikes me as rather nonsensical.

I did not assert that. I asserted that your culturist assumptions reside in that realm. Those assumptions include, if you don’t mind my quoting from my own book (which you should buy! my children are hungry!), p.136:

[Culturists believe that] human nature has very little innate structure and is extremely plastic. By placing it in a suitable environment, or applying suitable pressures, the mind (and therefore the behavior, which issues from the mind) can be shaped in any way at all.

“Human nature” does not really exist independent of the environment an individual happens to be in, especially that part of the environment made up of other human beings — “the culture.”

Beliefs like that have the status of dogma in Western societies, as can be seen from the savage vituperation visited on anyone, no matter how well-credentialed or well-intentioned (Larry Summers, James Watson) who strays from them. They belong, as I said, in the realm of good manners and social taboos. I am a big fan of good manners, and I doubt there was ever a human society without taboos: but public policy ought to be founded on something more substantial.

As for the Bret Stephens article: you won’t find anyone more skeptical of foreign aid than me — see pp.222–226 of WAD (after you’ve bought it!) I agree with him, and you, that if we keep doing what we have been doing, the Haitians will keep getting what they have been getting. We should therefore do something different. But what? “Nothing” can’t be the right answer: If we left Haitians to their own devices they would soon, going by their historical track record and the denuded present state of their country, experience a catastrophe ten times worse than the one they are currently enduring. But if traditional aid isn’t the answer, and hands-off isn’t the answer, what is the answer? Perhaps there isn’t one.

Still, blithe talk about a transformation of Haitian culture doesn’t seem (to me) to get us anywhere. Of course Haiti would be better if Haitians behaved differently. If my aunt had whiskers, she’d be my uncle. What can we do?

[Footnote, to your correspondent’s point that this is a rotten time to be talking about Haiti and its non-earthquake-related problems: Possibly so, but a place as economically and strategically inconsequential as Haiti should be glad of any attention it gets. If I were a Haitian, I think I’d be vexed that it takes an earthquake to get Americans talking about Haiti; but I’d be glad that at least they are talking.]

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