Falling on Deaf Ears
MAY 01, 1975 by JOHN C. SPARKS
Mr. Sparks is an executive of an Ohio manufacturing company and a frequent contributor to THE FREEMAN.
Under discussion was the value of human life. Several in the group thought television had vividly pictured so much violence and near-starvation around the world that we viewers — comfortable in our American homes — had become calloused against senseless killing and the suffering of the world’s unfortunate; consequently, appeals for corrective action were falling on deaf ears — namely, ours.
At that point, one of the ladies spoke up: "I watched an official of India being interviewed on TV the other evening. He told of the grievous need of so many Indians who suffer from malnutrition to the point of actual starvation. The interviewer asked if the Indian government had tried to persuade its people that fewer births might help relieve the problem. No, replied the official, they hadn’t, because ‘we love children and we would not want to decrease their number.’ The point of the program was to make me feel guilty that I had plenty to eat while so many others were starving. At first, I really felt guilty. Then I began to feel angry! Neither the program writers nor the Indian official recognized that the responsibility was on shoulders other than mine."
This particular television program was not an isolated instance designed to prick the conscience of American viewers. The general thrust of such programs is to blame those who have accepted responsibility to meet their own needs — and are doing so successfully — for those who are not. This is not an organized assault, in my opinion. It simply happens after years of living with a philosophy that condones "rights to have things" without the parallel self-responsibility to provide them.
Politicians thrive on it. What voter is not attracted to the political campaigner who promises to have a law passed that will give people things they have not produced? There has been no more successful political formula (for the short run, at least) than to promise unearned benefits to a maximum number of voters. The pragmatic politician thinks, "Forget the real economic world. Forget the dire negative incentive effects of transferring goods (or dollars) from producers to non-producers. Forget the insidious device of inflation to cover up the terrible cost. This, too, can be blamed on the producers; and not many voters seem perceptive enough to see through my deception." Of course, he is not likely to publicize his thoughts in those words. But he knows full well the formula — and he uses it for all it’s worth, falsely in the guise of compassion.
The acceptance of this philosophy goes beyond the political world. It now pervades virtually all areas of human action. The lady in the discussion group related how such thinking has almost become gospel in the medium of television. Much of the mission work of American church organizations is focused on nations with low levels of living — countries of southern Asia, Africa, South and Central America. With funds and personnel that are never enough, the church beseeches its American members to give more — not just more, but to give enough dollars to eliminate the hardship and suffering of the poor people of these countries. The usual tactic is to prick the conscience by implying guilt on the part of those who are well-fed and well-clothed in a world in which many are not.
Dividing the Dollars
Reliance on voluntary charity or on government grants to reduce substantially the hunger of the world’s poor, is a futile effort. There is not sufficient wealth in America, if given as charity, to reduce measurably their plight.
Suppose that the rich man in the story of Jesus had joined with all other rich men of the then-known world, and had given all they owned to the poor. Would the people of the world today have been noticeably better off as a result of such giving two thousand years ago? Suppose a similar action had occurred five hundred years ago? or ten years ago? It is difficult to imagine anything but negative answers.
Poverty can be alleviated in one way only, by increased productivity. And productivity is increased only as we have more and better tools and equipment per worker. Wealth not immediately consumed but set aside as capital (machinery, factories, research laboratories) makes for a productive economy and a rise in general prosperity affecting everyone. But periodically divide up the wealth and we’ll all stay poor! As one discerning economist put it rather astutely, "If we turn wealth into food and feed the world’s poor, what happens after lunch next Thursday, and both the food and the wealth to produce it has been eaten?"
What the poor need is a special means to end poverty, not the temporary respite afforded by gifts soon to be consumed. Before I am misunderstood, let me say that I favor charitable works, that there are little enough funds and personal effort to support true needs, that to the extent such works do administer moral and physical help, we should all be very thankful. Some people are physically beyond self-help, no matter what the opportunity. They are the poor, permanently disabled in body or mind, who will always require the help of others.
But there are others, also poor and despairing, who exist in such condition because someone is causing that condition. They may be of sound minds and bodies but have no opportunities to achieve self-reliance due to customs, beliefs, or laws that prohibit their self-sufficiency. The erasure of such prohibitions against human progress is the real cure, and it needs to be learned, taught and developed. Anything short of it is nothing but band-aids and aspirin. Here lies the real challenge to the American people — politicians, news media, educational institutions, and church organizations in world mission work.
The Need to Be Free
To be more specific, the poor of the world need to be free persons. They need to be free from taboos, customs, totalitarian regimes, and paternalistic socialist laws. Blockages of freedom will never allow the poor to climb from the misery and sickness of poverty. And not even the richest of peoples can do more than temporarily and partially relieve the suffering while such anti-freedom conditions persist.
Among well-intentioned politicians, professional churchmen, and many others is a deplorable lack of comprehension of the goodness of self-responsibility and freedom to exercise such qualities. Lip service favoring freedom of individual decision making is general, but seldom specific. Let’s look at some of the ways of missing the real point.
It is said, probably with reasonable accuracy, that over one-half of the world’s people are malnourished, and up to one-fifth are frequently at the borderline of starvation. The non-sleeping hours of people in underdeveloped nations are almost entirely consumed in their attempts to satisfy their hunger, often not very successfully. The foregoing descriptions are relevant in that they describe results of serious problems. But the causes usually are incorrectly identified. The mistaken reasons include:
· Rising affluence among the world’s well-to-do means less food for the poor.
· An American consumes many times "his share" of the world’s output of agricultural and industrial products; thus he and other Americans deprive the poor of their proper share.
· Americans squander their means on such luxuries as homes with too many bathrooms, swimming pools, too many energy-using heating and air-conditioning units.
· Fertilizer used to treat American lawns and golf courses would be better used to raise food for the poor.
One could go on and on preparing similar statements about the affluence of some, allegedly at the expense of others less fortunate. The single thread running through these allegations is the assignment of guilt to those who have been successful in finding the way to provide themselves not only the necessities but also some pleasures of life. I am not praising extravagance or conspicuous consumption. The point is that Americans enjoy more of the world’s goods because they produce more of them. If they were prevented from enjoying them they would stop producing them.
If There Were No USA…
There is little logic in suggesting that people in geographic locations remote to the United States cannot exist comfortably unless the citizens of U.S.A. provide those comforts. Would there be no hope for improvement of the level of life among the poor (of India, or Africa, for example) if there were no United States of America located in the northern half of the western hemisphere?
There is no magic of geographic location that brings self-sufficiency to people. No superhuman force showers gifts of food and clothing on Americans simply because they happen to be here. No, none of these. But there has been something better than magic "going for" Americans. Each one has had more personal freedom and less restriction than his less fortunate world brothers. Consequently, each American has had the opportunity to make the most of his abilities, and enough have done so to make this a land of plenty.
Freedom for an individual means freedom from others who would use authoritarian government, taboos, false gods, or other coercive powers to diminish the opportunity for self-fulfillment. Serious efforts of Americans to relieve the world’s poor will include a course of action designed to teach those poor and suffering persons how to become self-reliant and free rather than dependent on welfare. The poor of the world can ill afford the luxury of American misdirection.