In which the Crooked Timber of Humanity fails to appreciate conservatives

by Henry on June 26, 2005

David Brooks on the merits of Bush’s Africa policy.

The Bush folks, at least when it comes to Africa policy, have learned from centuries of conservative teaching – from Burke to Oakeshott to Hayek – to be skeptical of Sachsian grand plans. Conservatives emphasize that it is a fatal conceit to think we can understand complex societies, or rescue them from above with technocratic planning. … The Bush folks, like most conservatives, tend to emphasize nonmaterial causes of poverty: corrupt governments, perverse incentives, institutions that crush freedom. Conservatives appreciate the crooked timber of humanity – that human beings are not simply organisms within systems, but have minds and inclinations of their own that usually defy planners. You can give people mosquito nets to prevent malaria, but they might use them instead to catch fish.

The crucial – and rather disingenuous – qualifier is “at least when it comes to Africa policy.” Even Brooks doesn’t have the chutzpah to defend Bush’s overall foreign policy approach as an exemplar of Burkean prudence and appreciation for the complexity of other societies. On which, see further a rather interesting article by leftwing rabblerouser John Hulsman and Anatol Lieven forthcoming in the Summer 2005 issue of The National Interest. But even on Brooks’ chosen turf – the Bush administration’s Africa policy and the Millenium Challenge Account initiative – there’s little positive to be said from a principled conservative stance. Burke, Oakeshott and other traditional conservatives are notoriously hostile to grand abstractions and keen on practical results. Over the last four years, the Millennium Challenge Account has yielded plenty of airy rhetoric, but no practical results worth talking about. This is for the simple reason that it still scarcely exists. The problems of implementation that Brooks, in fairness, acknowledges in passing, stem from the fact that the Bush administration has obligated only 2% of the Millennium Challenge funds. Nor has the administration requested the $5 billion that Bush promised in any of the four budgets submitted to Congress after the initiative was announced. As of April 29 not one dollar of Millennium Challenge Account money had reached a developing nation. While an appreciation that complex societies can’t be “rescued from above by technocratic planning” is a fine and wonderful place to begin thinking about how to improve development aid, it can also be a highly convenient excuse for doing nothing. For all the bluster about Burke, Hayek and Oakeshott, the development-aid-as-vaporware approach seems at the moment to be well explained by a simpler theory of conservatism as moral philosophy ; that its primary characteristic is “the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.”

(hat tip – p o’neill )

{ 26 comments }

1

Kevin Donoghue 06.26.05 at 4:51 pm

Many thanks to you and P. O’Neill for reading Brooks so that we don’t have to. Now that US officials are holding talks with the Iraqi insurgents (well if you can believe Rumsfeld), fans of Burke will be able to quote great chunks from the Letters on a Regicide Peace about the horrible consequences of shrinking from a long war against a fanatical enemy.

That’s the nice thing about Burke. You can always find what you want.

2

C. Schuyler 06.26.05 at 6:32 pm

I wish I could remember the quotation verbatim, but the pretty conservative anthropologist Steven Goldberg (famous or notorious for his book THE INEVITABILITY OF PATRIARCHY) defines a conservative (in another book: WHEN WISH REPLACES THOUGHT) as someone with a nearly limitless tolerance for other people’s pain. (A paraphrase, I repeat.)

3

Jon Mandle 06.26.05 at 6:59 pm

Here’s
an update on Bush’s African Aids initiative.

4

Ophelia Benson 06.26.05 at 9:37 pm

I love this bit –

“The Bush folks, like most conservatives, tend to emphasize nonmaterial causes of poverty:”

Right – meaning, everything except the fact that rich-conservative X is paying Y the lowest wages X can get away with. That’s way too material, let’s never talk about that.

5

roublen vesseau 06.26.05 at 10:23 pm

Everything that is true about proposed foreign aid for Africa is also true about proposed Tsunami aid. The money will just be wasted, it’s not our responsibility, we have problems of our own to worry about, etc. etc.

Arthur Silber had a really great post about why there was such an outpuring of aid after the Tsunami, as opposed to the resistance to foreign aid in general. If we were to start giving foreign aid now, without a mobilizing event, that would be an implied criticism of our not giving aid in the past. While after the Tsunami, there’s no question of blaming ourselves or defending ourselves or feeling guilty for not helping before, so we could open our hearts to the Tsunami victims without any emotional resistance at all. And we did.

So I think one lesson is that liberals need to make the case for foreign aid without self-righteousness, and without making people feel guilty or defensive.

And it’s also important to point out that nobody is proposing giving away all of our money, or vast amounts of money. 0.5-1% of GDP is what Sachs and others like him are proposing. Even if the experiment fails, or is only a partial success, isn’t an experiment of 1% of our income for foreign aid worth trying?

(cross-posted at Brad Delong’s blog)

6

Kenneth Almquist 06.26.05 at 10:48 pm

Here is the entirety of Brooks’ comments on how Bush’s approach is working:

“It has the faults of its gradualist virtues. I recently sat in on a meeting in Mozambique between local and American officials. It was clear that the program, while well conceived, has been horribly executed. The locals had been given only the vaguest notions of what sort of projects the U.S. is willing to finance. After two years of trying they had received nothing.”

Sounds pretty damning, but Brooks still believes that Bush is on the right track. With enough faith, actual results don’t matter.

7

jet 06.26.05 at 10:48 pm

I watched Hotel Rwanda this weekend and it was horror beyound words. So I think we could start our foreign aid by paying and training the Ugandan/Rwandan RPF to invade the Sudan and stop that genocide too (maybe for 15 billion they’d do most of Africa).

But I think it is very clear why so few dollars have been allocated. According to this, there really aren’t many countries in Africa who qualify for aid. But Bush needs to open a history book and see how it is done. You don’t demand the country change and then give them the foreign aid crack. You get them hooked on the foreign aid/trade crack and then demand they change.

But given how hard it is even for entrenched NGO’s to get aid to the needy, Bush isn’t totally wrong for withholding funds. What is the current percentage for Zimbabwe, 10% of the foreign aid actually gets to the people while the rest is soaked up by the corrupt?

8

Bill Gardner 06.26.05 at 10:57 pm

It is worth noting that Brooks also badly mischaracterizes Sachs’ argument. Sachs says exactly the same things about close monitoring of aid to prevent loss to corruption that the Bush administration says.

9

brooksfoe 06.27.05 at 3:01 am

I don’t think there are many left on the Left who would advocate that foreign aid be dispensed the way it was in the ’60s, without regard to quality of governance and without what the development community calls “monitoring and evaluation”. Conservatives like Brooks tend to write idiotic columns on this subject because they’ve been so uninterested in foreign aid for so long that they have no idea what’s been going on for the last fifteen years. The sharp and well-deserved critiques of the waste and dependency-fostering of old-fashioned development assistance which started coming out in the late ’80s have had their effect. Donors have subjected development organizations to a range of monitoring and evaluation requirements so rigorous and invasive that they make the corporate accounting standards imposed in the wake of the Enron scandals look like child’s play. Indeed, much of the discussion going on around current large-scale aid programs like Bush’s PEPFAR anti-AIDS initiative is over the question of whether monitoring and evaluation have now become so rigorous that NGOs are spending more time monitoring and evaluating than they are actually trying to accomplish anything. Brooks, of course, believes this entire trend was invented by Bush’s “Millenium Challenge Accounts”, which as he notes haven’t actually gotten around to giving out any money yet. The fact is that the development community has fully absorbed what we used to consider “conservative” skepticism and hardheadedness.

The ills afflicting American-sponsored development aid today have more to do with the actual pathologies afflicting conservatism in power than with the philosophical clashes of Burke vs. (pick your antipode – Rousseau?). To wit, aid organizations with no technical expertise or experience created out of thin air to glom onto the politically mandated policy nostrums of the latest USAID specifications and score a quick multimillion-dollar contract. (E.g. “abstinence education”.) A fondness for announcing multibillion-dollar aid initiatives, then quietly failing to provide the funding. (PEPFAR, Millennium Challenge, etc.) A mania for new unilateral American programs in areas where excellent multilateral programs already exist, resulting in time-wasting learning curves and massive duplication of effort, not to mention byzantine accounting and reporting requirements for small NGOs receiving funding from American and foreign sources. (PEPFAR especially, duplicating the GFATM.) And of course the slaving of American aid to flavor-of-the-moment political issues in the US, again forcing NGOs abroad to whipsaw their programs in obedience to bizarre and irrelevant American political concerns. (E.g. USAID’s requirement that US-funded NGOs declare their opposition to legalization of prostitution. One expects any day now to find that African NGOs are being forced to issue declarations opposing the burning of American flags.)

All that said, however, Sachs’s grand plan to save Africa with an infusion of hundreds of billions of dollars in aid seems, to this leftist ex-African resident with some acquaintance with development, completely wacko. For all the stupidity associated with Bush’s PEPFAR program, one of the points on which the administration was right and its critics were wrong was its refusal to immediately dedicate $3 billion in the program’s first year. Aid needs to be ramped up gradually. Pouring money in all at once just blows holes in all the containers. The wages of local skilled and educated personnel who will be administering the programs get bid up. Recipient governments become obsessed with scoring large amounts of funding, rather than with achieving actual development targets. The big disbursing NGOs, which are funded directly by USAID and then redistribute the money downwards to smaller players, have to get rid of all the cash they receive in a FY or they’ll get less the following the FY; they run around desperately looking for semi-competent organizations to fund, and the standards get redefined downwards. And so on. Sachs may be a lot smarter than me, but he’s already been responsible for one colossal development failure in his career – Russia – and he’s now gunning for number 2. Russia and Africa hae always had a lot in common; it would be a shame if they came to share the distinction of being the two vast land masses ruined by Jeffrey Sachs.

10

abb1 06.27.05 at 4:50 am

I suppose I’m a conservative, ’cause I’ll say: yeah, forget technocratic planning, forget this ‘aid’ (it’s mostly F16s, isn’t it?) and just stop robbing, bullying and bribing those guys. They’ll figure it out without your ‘help’.

11

Ray 06.27.05 at 6:02 am

catch 22 – Spend time and effort monitoring the effects of aid, and you’re a bloated bureaucracy who spends the money on red tape. Cut out the red tape and minimise the money spent in the aid agency itself, and you’re creating perverse incentives, enabling wars, etc, etc.
Either way, you don’t deserve any money.

12

Steve LaBonne 06.27.05 at 7:56 am

Seems like few people at any point on the political spectrum- in Europe as well as the US- are eager to talk about one of the biggest things we can do to help a lot of developing countries: opening up our markets, to agricultural imports especially.

13

Brian 06.27.05 at 8:33 am

Why do you conclude this Steve? I don’t think you’d find anyone on this site (conservative commentators included) who’d support the European Common Agricultural Policy or the US farm subsidies, which are the major barriers to our markets. In any discussions I’ve had, it’s more or less taken as a given that those are bad things, and removing them would improve the situation. But since (a) removing them would not be a magic cure and (b) they are sadly not about to leave any time soon, it doesn’t seem there is no point discussing anything else.

14

Steve LaBonne 06.27.05 at 8:50 am

I was making a general comment about many commentators in the media and blogosphere- definitely including Brooks who as “conservative” should theoretically be an enthusiastic free-trader- not dissing anybody around here.

15

Brian 06.27.05 at 9:07 am

Ah, I see. Sorry for the misreading.

16

Uncle Kvetch 06.27.05 at 9:11 am

I’ll have to come back to this later. So much coffee came out of my nose after reading the first 2 sentences of the Brooks excerpt that I need to go clean myself up.

If it’s Tuesday, we can and must remake the world in our image, for such is the nature of true conservatism.

If it’s Saturday, we are humble and prudent and wary of grand, messianic schemes, for such is the nature of true conservatism.

And if it’s Thursday, something I overheard while waiting on line at Home Depot the other day will be spun into a profound insight into American political sociology.

Brooks, Friedman, Tierney…it boggles the mind. How many people are going to pay 50 cents a year for this parade of idiocy, let alone $50?

17

jet 06.27.05 at 9:18 am

When you realize the impact of US (and European) farm subsidies on third world nations, articles like this are hard to stomach.

Just $4 billion per year would guarantee every full-time farmer in America a minimum income of 185 percent of the federal poverty level ($34,873 for a family of four in 2004).5 However, farm subsidies are more corporate welfare than poverty relief, so Washington instead spends $12 billion to $30 billion annually subsidizing large farms and agribusinesses that are much wealthier than the taxpayers footing the bill.

So it would appear that the US could extremely fairly and quickly add another 30 billion in indirect foreign aid (or as I like to call it, Free Trade) and the only people hurt would be large agro who are buying yachts and G5’s with taxpayer money.

18

abb1 06.27.05 at 11:07 am

There’s nothing wrong with the US and EU protecting their farms; in fact it is, generally speaking, a prudent and wise policy. What they shouldn’t do, however, is bullying and bribing developing countries’ governments into opening their markets to importing these subsidised products, or any products for that matter.

19

Dan Simon 06.27.05 at 11:43 am

Why Africa?

South Asia has more than half again as many people living in extreme poverty as all of Africa. Yet a program to eliminate poverty there would surely be cheaper, easier to implement, and more likely to succeed than Sachs’ proposal for Africa. Repressive, corrupt government, civil and border wars, and illiteracy are not entirely absent, but they’d likely be much less of an obstacle to development. There’s even a “colonial guilt” angle, if that matters.

So why Africa?

20

P ONeill 06.27.05 at 11:52 am

So why Africa?

Because the trends are much worse. Absolute number of poor is higher in S. Asia, but these countries are growing at a sufficient rate to pull a lot of people out of absolute poverty on their own. They’ve done a lot of poverty reduction already. Africa hasn’t even managed to do things that South Asia did, like Green Revolution and creation of tech enclaves. Of course the work is not done when we lift people from $0.99/day to $1.05 per day. But Sachs would argue for directing global effort where the prospects for absolute misery are highest.

21

Jack 06.27.05 at 11:57 am

I think it is clear that current EU and US agricultural arrangements are very damaging but instantly switching to free trade will have all sorts of unintended consequences. For example it is not clear that the countries that are suffering at the moment are also those that would benefit from liberalisation. The EU and the rest might just end up switching to cheap supplies from Brazil reducing prices and opportunities for undercapitalised industries in Africa and other places. There are also a lot of opportunities for major industrial enterprises to co-opt the no doubt imperfect legislation to implement this kind of reform. Britain’s wimp-out on the CAP (refusing a cap on CAP aid payments)is a case in point.

I read this in the IHT and thought it made a lot of sense but couldn’t find it on-line.

22

J 06.27.05 at 12:42 pm

brooksfoe, great comment. I saw Sachs speak (haven’t read the book) — he’s an economist, not a historian, political scientist, or sociologist, and it shows. He really does believe that “clinical economics” can find the roots of problems and offer “practical” solutions. He acknowledges that aid is currently poorly spent (much on international consultants, direct food aid, and shipping direct food aid), but he doesn’t confront the fact that even if aid spending is increased, this apportionment will (most certainly) not change. He’s for “trade AND aid” in order to overcome the poverty trap, but he’s overemphasized aid to a degree that is shocking. I think he’s made a political calculation — 1) his advocacy can have a greater effect on aid as compared to trade policies and 2) this work came out of the UN sponsored Millennium Project, which has an interest in increasing aid. His arguments seem to be made to appeal to American conservatives in particular, as he emphasizes that the poor should not be blamed for their poverty. Perhaps he thinks that becoming saviors through aid will appeal to them.

On the “Why Africa” question, I think Sachs would say that there are some barriers that Africa faces of the “Guns, Germs, and Steel” variety. For example, endemic malaria, the distribution of rainfall juxtaposed with the location of port cities, etc.

23

J 06.27.05 at 12:43 pm

brooksfoe, great comment. I saw Sachs speak (haven’t read the book) — he’s an economist, not a historian, political scientist, or sociologist, and it shows. He really does believe that “clinical economics” can find the roots of problems and offer “practical” solutions. He acknowledges that aid is currently poorly spent (much on international consultants, direct food aid, and shipping direct food aid), but he doesn’t confront the fact that even if aid spending is increased, this apportionment will (most certainly) not change. He’s for “trade AND aid” in order to overcome the poverty trap, but he’s overemphasized aid to a degree that is shocking. I think he’s made a political calculation — 1) his advocacy can have a greater effect on aid as compared to trade policies and 2) this work came out of the UN sponsored Millennium Project, which has an interest in increasing aid. His arguments seem to be made to appeal to American conservatives in particular, as he emphasizes that the poor should not be blamed for their poverty. Perhaps he thinks that becoming saviors through aid will appeal to them.

On the “Why Africa” question, I think Sachs would say that there are some barriers that Africa faces of the “Guns, Germs, and Steel” variety. For example, endemic malaria, the distribution of rainfall juxtaposed with the location of port cities, etc.

24

Jacob T. Levy 06.27.05 at 12:48 pm

This: “The Bush folks, like most conservatives, tend to emphasize nonmaterial causes of poverty: corrupt governments, perverse incentives, institutions that crush freedom.”

doesn’t even really make sense on its own terms. The “material/ nonmaterial” divide on the causes of poverty is one between economics and those aspects of politics and law that touch on economics, on one side, and culture (and those aspects of politics and law etc) on the other. “Corrupt governments” are decidedly a material cause of poverty. They directly steal from their people; they impose such high transaction costs in demands for bribes that productive economic activity is stifled; they refuse stability and transparency in property and contract enforcement, which require an uncorrupt judiciary.

This isn’t culture, or religion, or alcoholism, or illegitimacy, or anything like that. It’s straightforwardly material.

Brooks appears to be conflating “material causes of poverty” with “the absence of transfer payments.” This allows him to assimilate the foreign aid case to the domestic welfare case, and to imply that the Bush foreign aid policy is something like the faith-based initiatives. But the implication is silly. F-BI stresses nonmaterial causes of domestic poverty. The rhetoric of the Bush plan is about material causes of African poverty– *local* material causes, certainly, but material nonetheless.

25

Daniel 06.27.05 at 2:31 pm

You can give people mosquito nets to prevent malaria, but they might use them instead to catch fish.

If they are fishing for fish which are the size of mosquitoes, no wonder the poor buggers are starving. Does nobody read these things before printing them?

Oh yeh and

don’t think you’d find anyone on this site (conservative commentators included) who’d support the European Common Agricultural Policy or the US farm subsidies, which are the major barriers to our markets

Hand up; I’ll support the CAP, at least in the face of the current attacks, because it isn’t a major barrier to the EU market. Since the last set of reforms, the EU does not subsidise the creation of material surpluses (not that surpluses were a bad thing anyway; cheap food is not bad for starving people). It also allows poor African nations access to the EU market on member state terms. The only commodity for which this is remotely true is Malawian and Zambian sugar, and it would be a bad idea for Malawi and Zambia to increase their reliance on sugar exports, since they would be competing with Australia and Brazil.

The current proposals to scrap the CAP (as opposed to the previous campaigns which resulted in the present reforms) look like nothing more than an attempt by the UK to get out of paying for the thing, backed by energetic lobbying by Australian and Brazilian commodities interests, and greenwashed as proposals to “help Africa” by a load of NGOs that should know better. I have not seen any anti-CAP campaigner come up with a plausible suggestion as to how we should replace the preferential access regime, which leaves me with the sneaking suspicion that removing the CAP would leave Africa somewhat worse off.

I don’t know anything about US farm subsidies.

26

Maynard Handley 06.27.05 at 4:14 pm

People with iPods may be interested to know that a google search for Jeffrey Sachs mp3 turns up quite a few of his lectures. After listening to one (given at Amherst, I believe) all I can do is agree with the general sentiments of this thread — his heart is in the right place but the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Two examples of astonishing naivete immediately spring to mind.
The first is his claim that corruption is common, but Asian countries have prospered in spite of corruption, a statement that seems unaware of the concept of degrees of badness. There is an awful difference between a corrupt government that skims 10% off the building of a dam/highway/powerplant, and has the plant still built, and a government that skims 100%, leaving the country with blueprints for a powerplant and not much else.
The second is his favorite example of mosquito nets. I imagine this example is chosen because the implication is that, unlike giving a government cash, if you give them mosquito nets how can they then do any damage? Of course even the most cursory glance at African history shows a wide variety of ingenious ways in which the nets can be exploited — they can be sold to the people they are meant to be given to, they can be sold to slightly less poor countries (Asia and South America spring to mind), or, that most favorite of African tactics, they can be given to those of the chosen sphere (correct tribe/language/voting record) while being withheld as punishment from those who are not favored.

At the end of the day we are face the elephant that no-one wants to mention — sovereignty. There is a constituency in the west that, for good reason, sees any attempt by Westerners to force Africans to do things a certain way, as intensely problematic. There is another constituency that, for just as good reasons, doesn’t believe that a single damn good thing will happen in Africa until those providing aid can, with overwhelming force behind them, step in as necessary to damn well crush and kill those who use aid as piggy bank or political patronage. Between these two we have a stalemate with no obvious resolution.

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