Posts Tagged fatal conceit
I recently wrote about Bono’s recent comments on capitalism, arguing that although I’m not overly optimistic about the trajectory of his interventionist efforts, it marks a healthy development in any do-gooder’s evolution from hasty top-down planner to careful ground-up cultivator.
Over at the Hang Together blog, Greg Forster urges us to have more optimism about the Goggled One, arguing that even rhetorical developments are cause for encouragement:
Here’s my thinking. A big change has been slowly percolating for a while in the Christian international aid space. On-the-ground practice has not changed yet. But their social system of legitimization – the network of gatekeepers who anoint what’s good and what’s bad – are increasingly embracing the need for the kinds of changes we want. Bono is only the most recent example.
And it’s getting harder and harder to dismiss this as partisan rhetoric or libertarian ideology as more and more people who self-identify as progressives are getting on the bandwagon. Again, Bono is only the most recent example.
The big aid organizations have responded by adopting the rhetoric of change. I recall seeing promotional materials from World Vision that talked about helping people develop economic independence. Of course they’re not actually doing that, but the fact that they have to say they are is a canary in the coal mine for them.
It’s a little like how Democratic judicial nominees now have to clothe themselves in the rhetoric of judicial restraint in a way they never had to fifteen years ago. Or how the teachers’ unions have had to adopt the rhetoric of teacher performance and even choice. Or how President Obama has had to adopt the rhetoric of free enterprise and even pick up Arthur Brooks’ “earned success” language. As in those fields, so in this one: it’s an early sign that we’re winning. The gap between their words and their deeds will grow, and the pressure for real change is only going to get bigger.
They key for us now, as I see it, is to capitalize on this change without falling into either of two pitfalls. On the one hand, we don’t want to drive away our new friends. Joe Sunde’s skepticism in the post I linked above, while reasonable, needs to be tempered somewhat. We don’t want to punish people for moving in our direction, we want to reward them! (We believe that incentives affect behavior, right?)
Forster makes a good point about celebrating when there’s cause for celebration. I have no desire to punish folks like Bono for any movement they make in the direction of markets. My intent was merely to offer a cautionary qualification amidst the balloons and streamers. But perhaps I could’ve tooted my kazoo a bit louder up front.
I also think Forster’s point on rhetoric is a good one: “the gap between their words and their deeds will grow, and the pressure for real change is only going to get bigger.” School choice and judicial restraint are good examples of this, but I still think we need to call out mere rhetoric as mere rhetoric and guide people to an understanding of what real solutions look like beyond and before the rhetoric.
“Before the rhetoric?” you ask? Indeed, in my own thoughts on the matter, I was actually aiming to celebrate something preceding Bono’s words, particularly his new humbled attitude about the limitations of his own human hands, quite apart from any specific endorsement of this or that political or economic solution.
It’s no coincidence, of course, that this humbled approach to development and poverty alleviation has led him where it’s led him: to capitalism.
Read Forster’s full post here.
Also, read Ryan Anderson’s comments here.
The Irish singer and co-founder of ONE, a campaigning group that fights poverty and disease in Africa, said it had been “a humbling thing for me” to realize the importance of capitalism and entrepreneurialism in philanthropy, particularly as someone who “got into this as a righteous anger activist with all the cliches.”
“Job creators and innovators are just the key, and aid is just a bridge,” he told an audience of 200 leading technology entrepreneurs and investors at the F.ounders tech conference in Dublin. “We see it as startup money, investment in new countries. A humbling thing was to learn the role of commerce.”
I’m a bit skeptical about the broader significance of these remarks on Bono’s activism, but I do think they’re illuminating. Over at the Acton Institute, I argue that Bono’s new humbled attitude is precisely what we need in our attempts to improve economic development:
Although I’m not overly confident that Bono’s sudden self-awareness is enough to radically shift his aid efforts away from fostering dependency, this small admission helps illuminate one of our key obstacles to doing good in the world: overzealousness paired with overconfidence.
Bono describes his realization as a “humbling thing,” and “humbling” is precisely what the foreign aid experts and economic planners could use. As Friedrich Hayek famously wrote, “The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.” As the story of the Tower of Babel well confirms, man has a natural disposition to think he knows more than he knows and can construct beyond what he can construct—all to make a name for himself. The juice of righteous anger is a powerful enabler, and once it’s pumping through our veins it takes even less time for our human tendencies to escalate. After all, we’re only out to deliver humanity to heaven’s doorstep.
Such overconfidence in our own designs can be particularly destructive in the realm of economics, a science that’s in a constant battle over whether it should seek to explain human action, control it, or bypass it altogether. Such planners find a perfect match in eager activists such as Bono. “We can build your tower to heaven,” they’ll say, “and you can make a name for yourself. If only the right policy buttons are pushed and the right economic equilibrium is arranged, the world can be set to rights.”
Of all people, Christians should be aware of the deeper spiritual questions we should be asking, cautious not to be wise in our own eyes:
The economic engineer’s intrusion goes well beyond barging into more natural and effective social institutions. For in doing so, he treats dignified man and the unpredictable, invaluable relationships in which he engages as the mere mingling of predictable pieces in a larger static game. Such an intrusion should cause great alarm for those of us seeking restoration among the suffering. For how can we hope to improve conditions for the human person if we skip past what it means to be a human person? For the Christian in particular, God instructs each of us to do what the Lord wills. Are we really to Read the rest of this entry »