Derb the Social Con?

John Derbyshire is sort of the cranky uncle in National Review’s the Corner.  He’s someone I used to find amusing, but he often goes off the rails when it comes to social and religious issues.  I was prepared to ignore his scathing attack of a George W. Bush op-ed in which the former president defended his efforts to increase funding to fight the spread of AIDS in Africa.  Derb’s not much impressed by Bush’s perceived moralizing, and objects to the public financing of something that he feels should be done through private charity.  It’s a sentiment worthy of debate on its own merits, but I was struck by this comment:

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.)

By “customary practices,” I’m assuming that Derb is talking about both promiscuous sexual activity and rampant drug use.

The reason that this jumped out at me is because it’s a rather familiar argument.  After all, isn’t this an echo of what we argue when we note that the encouragement of condom use in Africa won’t solve the AIDS epidemic there?  Don’t we, too, claim that we need to change cultural practices, not hand out condoms?  In essence, Derb is making a similar argument.  By contributing money, he’s saying,  you’re absolving people of some of the responsibility for their behavior and perhaps encouraging them to continue in that very behavior which leads them to contract the AIDS virus.

Now it’s not exactly the same thing.  Charitable contributions and condom distribution are, to say the least, not morally equivalent.  Also, one of the arguments against condom use is that it simply encourages people to have sex outside of marriage.  Aside from the moral problems associated with this, even “protected” sex is not 100% safe.  Donating money to help people who have already acquired the disease – many through no moral failing of their own – seems to be a rather humane response and should not be scrapped.

Based on the tenor of his post it’s clear that Derb isn’t exactly coming at this from a cultural point-of-view, but is criticizing the program based on an extreme libertarian notion about foreign aid.  It does occur to me, however, that this might be one of those moments, discussed on this very blog in recent weeks, where libertarians and social conservatives can find some common ground. Though Derb’s advocacy of a complete abandonment of any American aid certainly feels harsh and is, I believe, an extreme solution , it seems that he shares our end goal of changing behavior.

On the other hand, perhaps one commenter on the Corner has the right response to Derbyshire’s post:

`I wish to be left alone,’ said Scrooge. ‘Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don’t make merry myself at Christmas, and I can’t afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned – they cost enough:
and those who are badly off must go there.’

“If they would rather die,’ said Scrooge, ‘they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population…”

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Dante alighieri


  1. You are absolutely correct; we can debate all we want about whether it is the proper role of government to help people in need (whether in this country or another country) or rather that should be left to private charity alone.

    As Catholics however, what can’t be debated is our obligation to help the poor and the sick. Further more, we cannot simply write off some of the poor or sick, saying that the others would be better off if we let these ones die (Note I am not talking about triage; if our resources for charity are limited, I see no reason not to target that charity to where it will do the most good, I am talking about deliberately with-holding charity). Each individual must be helped to the extent that it is possible for us to help (Note most of us, including myself probably fall far short of that mark, but that should be our ideal).

    Ultimately, some, if indeed most of our charity may do little physical good to those in need. What it might accomplish however is far greater. By allowing ourselves to be conduits of Christ’s love, we let those in need feel Christ’s love in a way that might bring them to salvation.

  2. I remember reading similar moral hazard arguments against Pope Clement and the Church of Rome’s sacrament of reconciliation.

    Charitable contributions and condom distribution are, to say the least, not morally equivalent.

    You’re making the wrong comparison. Would charitable contributions for condom purchase be moral? The correct comparison is between STD treatment and condoms. Catholics strive for uncompromising ideals and care for those who fall short of perfection. Derbyshire wants us to strive for uncompromising ideals and chalk up the weak as the price to pay for the advancement of the species. It doesn’t just “feel” harsh. It’s evil.

  3. Right or wrong, President Bush was “charitable” with someone else’s $$$ billions. Not mine: my tax money buys weapons.

    And, it is not “charity” when you extract other people’s money at gunpoint.

  4. Echoing Shaw, here. It’s not something we could do like flicking a switch, but it would be a VERY good thing to change over to– not in the least because government charity tends to involve a whole lot of fraud!

    My cousin and his wife were volunteers for a Catholic aid program of some sort, so I know they’re out there.

  5. I’m basically in Bill and RR’s camp, and I would say that RR’s analogy is a better one that the one I gave. That said, looking over at some of the comments on Derb’s posts (they’ve reached about 60 as I write this, which is about ten times what you get on a typical Corner post) I’m intrigued by the reaction. About half are like T. Shaw and Foxfier and agree with Derb, and the other half seem ready to grab the pitchforks. Again, I disagree with his overall opposition to the aid, but is what he said so beyond the pale? I’m genuinely curious.

    It seems that some of what he said is in fact right on the money, in particular his criticisms of Bush’s statement that this somehow is beneficial to American foreign policy interests, a claim that is dubious at best. And even if you don’t fully support Derb’s libertarian-inspired opposition to foreign aid, as my post indicated, his notion that our efforts are wasted if we don’t ultimately change the behavior is I think something most of us would agree with. Granted Derb’s tone is a bit callous – that’s par for the course – and ultimately he seems a little to eager to punish those people who are clearly victims of other people’s bad behavior. But are these concerns so absurd that they merit the sort of feedback he’s gotten from some quarters? I should add that I don’t particularly care for Derb and almost wish I had an excuse to grab a pitchfork along with the others, but this doesn’t seem that off the wall, even if wrong. Or am I just a meanie myself?

  6. Even Jesse Helms supported foreign aid to Africa to treat those with AIDS. Being that far to the right of Jesse Helms on not only a foreign aid issue, but one pertaining to AIDS, ought to give one pause.

  7. Is opposition to taxpayer-funded foreign aid really an “extreme libertarian” position?

    Didn’t Pope Benedict just say something recently about how foreign aid often harms the recipients more than it helps them? I don’t recall the details, but I thought he touched on that, and others certainly have. I’m sure Derb is talking about the reality of foreign aid, which tends to encourage corruption, line the pockets of dictators, and interfere with local economies. Perhaps some ideal Catholic version of foreign aid would be a good thing, but that’s not what he’s talking about here.

    This is another one of those arguments that usually goes like this:

    Nice, caring person: “We have to do something.”
    Realist: “But what you’re doing isn’t helping, it’s hurting.”
    Nice person: ” But we have to do something! People are dying/sick/starving!”
    Realist: “But your solutions only make things worse. Here, look at these numbers from your own organizations that prove the harm you’re doing.”
    Nice person: “I can’t believe you want people to die! Racist!”

  8. Oh, dear!

    RR said, “Derbyshire wants us to strive for uncompromising ideals and chalk up the weak as the price to pay for the advancement of the species.”


    “uncompromising ideals” as in: not fornicking everyone and everything in sight?

    “weak” – search and replace: “evil.”

    Give alms out of your substance. That is charity. Tax (steal) from people and give it to the cause celebre du jour: that is politics; no it’s hypocrisy.

  9. Aaron B., what you mention is part of what Derbyshire talks about. The problem portion is where he says that treating AIDS victims is bad policy.

    Also, how often does aid never help? Even if some of the aid perpetuates corruption, it doesn’t render the entire aid package harmful. I’d wager that in most countries that receive aid, the good outweighs the bad.

  10. RR, the point isn’t whether you’d wager it, but whether it’s true. Also, should we only oppose aid if it “never helps”? How about if it helps 10 people and harms 10 others? Is that acceptable? And do we count those who are harmed in the first place by having the money taken from them, or those who could have been helped by that money in the source country if it hadn’t been shipped away?

    These are open questions, but they can’t even be discussed in polite society today, as is evident from the reactions to Derb’s piece. As soon as you say, “maybe the governments of wealthy nations shouldn’t use their citizens’ money to play social engineer in poorer countries,” that’s immediately translated into, “I hate those people over there who don’t look and talk like me.” Conversation over.

    The Holy Father has suggested that wealthy nations should help developing ones by forgiving their debts. Over 40 ‘developing’ nations have debts to Western countries and the global bankers. This money came with strings that are used to try to mold the recipients in the image of the givers, not just in things like condom distribution, but in everything else, from the way they select their leaders to the way they grow their food. Stopping that, and letting them keep their own cultures and ways of living, would be a better way to help them than treating them like poor Americans.

  11. Also, how often does aid never help? Even if some of the aid perpetuates corruption, it doesn’t render the entire aid package harmful.

    The evidence is that foreign aid has an overall negative effect on political and economic development comparable to the “resource curse” (where having lots of natural resources in a country tends to make the people their poorer because it provides governments a means of getting rich besides the prosperity of its citizens). See e.g. here. I would say that this is a decisive argument against development aid. It is not a decisive argument against humanitarian aid, as the aid could still have positive effects that counter-balance the negative effects on democracy and growth. But it is a reason to be cautious. To the extent possible humanitarian aid should be directed through churches and other independent organizations rather than governments.

  12. Aaron B., the faux exchange your posted assumes that aid does not help at all. I’d favor aid that does more good than harm. Maybe you believe that aid does more harm than good which is a reasonable view but that’s not what you posted.

    I’m not making up what Derbyshire said. He says that AIDS treatment is bad policy. It’s not possible to have a discussion when you ignore the point of the discussion.

    The Holy Father has suggested that wealthy nations should help developing ones by forgiving their debts. Over 40 ‘developing’ nations have debts to Western countries and the global bankers. This money came with strings that are used to try to mold the recipients in the image of the givers, not just in things like condom distribution, but in everything else, from the way they select their leaders to the way they grow their food. Stopping that, and letting them keep their own cultures and ways of living, would be a better way to help them than treating them like poor Americans.

    I disagree.

  13. Blackadder, thanks. It is important to distinguish between development aid and humanitarian aid. Do you believe development aid has or can be beneficial when there are strings attached? E.g., regular monitored elections, Washington Consensus.

  14. Sorry for another post, but I finally found the one I was looking for:
    Catholic Relief Services. They’re 4% fundraising, 3% admin, and their description reads like what *I* wish we could put money into, instead of a gov’t program:

    CRS supports projects designed to help communities in countries throughout Africa, Asia, Europe and Latin America identify long-term solutions to poverty and build self-sufficiency. In most programs, CRS collaborates with one or more local partner agencies. The child survival, water and sanitation, and HIV/AIDS education and care projects give priority to the most vulnerable, typically women of reproductive age, infants, and the very young. Approaching farming as a family business, CRS is involved in furnishing assistance that includes processing, storage, and marketing of crops; weed, disease, and pest control; livestock production, fishing, and forestry; and irrigation and soil and water conservation. CRS also helps establish village banks to invest in loans to persons who have little or no access to other credit alternatives. As a means of achieving increased enrollment and regular attendance of children, especially girls, CRS supports school feeding programs. CRS also carries out humanitarian assistance operations in response to natural and man-made disasters, supplying aid in the form of food, medicines, shelter, and other relief supplies. CRS also conducts workshops; sponsors solidarity camps, prepares training manuals, stimulates inter-religious dialogue, and monitors early warning signs to promote the principles of tolerance, conflict resolution, and reconciliation. Furthermore, CRS operates programs in the United States that focus on parish outreach, fair trade, advocacy, and farmer-to-farmer support. These programs inform and engage American Catholics about poverty and injustice overseas, and provide them with the opportunity to get involved as individuals, with their families, and in their schools.

    My dad has been in ag work since he was 14 (with time out for Vietnam and getting his AA) and doesn’t get excited about much…but even offhanded mentions of foreign agriculture practices will get him lecturing.

    He’s STILL learning tricks, because he was taught the basics and how they work (his grandfather was a successful Scott shepherd whose wife helped teach the local Indians how to farm when you can’t just move to the next area over and let the land recover– totally different training style) and encouraged to try to teach himself more.
    (Did you know that when you’re calving in winter, it’s best to feed in the evening? The cows will mostly give birth in the morning, because they won’t miss their feed time. That cut WAY down on the number of calves lost because it was a difficult birth in the cold and dark.)

    Shipping in tons of food for a long time kills the local farming economy, setting up camps keeps folks clustered together, money will be stolen, food given to existing infrastructure to be distributed non-centrally will usually be stolen, teaching folks a mechanical understanding of ag will fail (especially if it depends on modern US agricultural tools in a place without the support for them), and we (the first world nations) have a bad habit of getting these poor nations hooked, then telling them to do what we say or we’ll stop giving them stuff. (Doesn’t help that those making the decisions are usually the same ones getting rich from us giving them stuff, either.)


    Sometimes, I really don’t like humans.

  15. It strikes me that where Derb’s argument breaks down is on the assumption that subsidizing AIDS drugs will encourage people to be casual about getting AIDS. While it may reduce the danger of actually dying from AIDS, my impression is that the level of care available in Africa from foreign aid is still pretty low, and thus the incentive to not get AIDS is still pretty strong regardless of medication availability.

    Handing out condoms, on the other hand, I think pretty clearly sends the message, “Go have sex, don’t worry about who it’s with, it’s safe!”

    In that regard, I’m not clear you can make the argument that funding AIDS treatment in Africa is keeping other, more positive change from happening in the way that throwing condoms around does. And so although the argument is similar in structure to the pope’s in regards to sending condoms to Africa, I don’t think it has similar validity.

    One can, of course, easily argue as to whether US government funding is the right way to get AIDS treatment to Africa on the basis of a whole lot of practical or prudential basis, but I’m not clear the “social conservative” argument works.

  16. Darwin-
    if we were talking about folks with our background and education, yes. But we’re talking about unscientific folks. *Realistically*, the care isn’t amazing; word-of-mouth, you get sick, they treat you, and you can move on.

  17. Thanks for that link, Art. One of the problems with most of the responses against Derb in the comments on the Corner as that most simply rebuked him without really offering any substantive arguments. Wehner’s was one of the more thorough critiques I’ve seen.

    As for why Derb continues to find employment at NR, it’s a bit of a mystery. I suppose it’s nice that NR continues to employ people with radically different viewpoints within conservatism. Even though I’ve had my frustration with NR, it seems to me that there is more ideological diversity there than most partisan magazines like The Weekly Standard, Mother Jones, etc.

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