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…”