Joseph Loconte is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a commentator on religion for National Public Radio. In this post he reviews Jeffrey Sachs' Reith Lectures.
To those of a certain temper of mind, a hope took hold in the years after the Great War that the “world community” was maturing toward a new stage of political and economic cooperation—that of socialism. There seemed to be lots of theorists around who nurtured this notion and no shortage of politicians who swooned under its sway. British Labour MP John Strachey caputured the mood:
“It is clear that man will in the end tire of the inconvenient idiosyncrasies of loyalty and will wish to pool the cultural heritage of the human race into a world synthesis.”
Since then, we’ve seen the “inconvenient idiosyncrasies” of the Third Reich, the Soviet Gulag, the Cultural Revolution, the killing fields of Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and, of course, the rise of Islamic jihad. So much for the world synthesis: Man has not yet grown tired of his irrational loyalties, but the dream that men and nations will do so—and will do so with dispatch—remains too attractive to let die.
Economist Jeffrey Sachs, delivering the BBC’s prestigious 2007 Reith Lectures, is keeping hope alive. His gospel is a familiar message of global cooperation—rich nations delivering money and resources to developing countries—that can defeat poverty in almost no time flat. We need merely to shed our petty rivalries and rearrange our spending priorities. “We can end poverty, at home and abroad, with the technologies and tools that we have, if we trust each other sufficiently, at home and abroad,” he predicts. “The more people understand the real choices the real consequences and the real power that we have, with phenomenal technologies available, the more likely it is that we make the right choices.”
Mr. Sachs’s special burden, a supremely humane one, is to end deprivation on the African continent. He identifies four obstacles:
- low food production
- deficient infrastructure and
All of these problems, he claims, are “solvable with proven and relatively low-cost technologies.” Each of his lectures, in fact, emphasizes the role of science, technology and economic management in overcoming poverty on a global scale. Each is designed to challenge the conscience of the West in its relationship to the developing world.
What actually confounds the conscience, however, is what Mr. Sachs fails to address in any of his talks. Despite his reputation as a globe-trotting economist, he barely appreciates the complexity of problems embedded in the cultures he is so eager to rescue. He brushes aside warnings from African economists that Western aid will continue to be wasted on corrupt regimes that resist reform. He hardly mentions the social devastation caused by civil and regional wars—and, when he does, reinterprets them as a clash of economic interests. The genocidal bloodletting in the Darfur region of Sudan, for example, is reducible to a struggle over natural resources. (Tell that to the women being raped by Arab militias who despise their non-Arab identity.) The failure of U.N. peacekeeping missions on the continent, the persistence of dictatorial rule, the massive numbers of internal refugees, the sexual trafficking of women and girls—none of it seems to count for much in the Sachs calculus.
Likewise, Mr. Sachs views the AIDS pandemic that is ravaging the continent as simply a failure of the West to commit sufficient resources to vaccines and health infrastructure. The lessons of Uganda—that profoundly destructive sexual behaviors can and must be challenged—are dismissed. The alarming and complex problem of AIDS orphans is overlooked. The role of religious communities in changing sexual mores, as well as helping at-risk populations, is completely ignored. Top-down, technical solutions—engineered in Washington, New York, Geneva, and Brussels—dominate the Sachs reform agenda. Without a hint of irony, Mr. Sachs places the fate of Africa entirely in the hands of white, Western elites.
It all brings to mind poor Mrs. Jellyby, the Dickens character in Bleak House with her beloved “African project.” No matter what the actual results on the ground, she says, “I am more confident of success every day.”
Others are not so confident. “Corruption is the thing that will undermine any aid the most because it undermines any support back from the taxpayers. It undermines, obviously, the governments and the countries themselves,” says William Easterly, professor of economics at New York University and author of The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good. The result, he warned recently, could be “a new wave of cynicism that will destroy the case for effective aid, that will destroy the ability of people to do effective things that work for our generation.”
The Sachs view of the world, if widely endorsed by democratic leaders, could end up destroying much more than that.
What emerges from this lecture series is a soaring, unblushing hymn to humanism: a utopian view of societies utterly detached from the moral and spiritual motivations of the human person. An older humanism, in the Christian tradition, recognized that man’s capacity for virtue and achievement was deeply qualified by his perverted ego and insatiable lust for power. Not here: rationalism, scientism, secularism—thus is the trinity of Mr. Sach’s belief system. There is no room for the problem of human evil, no sense whatsoever of the tragedy of human nature. Here is escapism, adorned in the rhetoric of economic planning, progress, and prognostication.
The danger of escapism in a post-9/11 world is that it gives a free hand to the great enemies of decency and democracy—most importantly, the forces of radical Islam. “It’s a fascinating and crucial concept for us,” says Mr. Sachs, “peace as a way of solving problems.” As if there were no sworn enemies to the advocates of peace. As if peace would arrive simply by declaring it as a goal. As if a just peace could be achieved by the refusal to use force to stop murder on a massive scale.
A more sober generation of humanists knew better. Philosopher Lewis Mumford, writing as the Nazi war machine cast its shadow over Europe, excoriated the escapists of his own day. “One of the reasons that liberalism has been so incapable of working energetically for good ends is that it is incapable of resisting evil,” he wrote. “In its priggish fear of committing an unfair moral judgment, it habitually places itself on the side of…fascism’s victories.” For Mr. Sachs, however, the “true lesson” of the 1938 Munich Pact—the betrayal of Czechoslovakia into Nazi hands—is that democratic states should “reject concessions that cripple one’s security.”
The mind boggles. The actual, shameful lesson of Munich—that totalitarian aggression must never be appeased—the lesson learned by every responsible statesman and public intellectual since, is dismissed by the BBC’s anointed spokesman for economic progressivism.
It thus comes as no surprise when Mr. Sachs belittles the idea that America and the West face any threats other than their own prejudices and parochial ambitions. Instead, he scolds the United States repeatedly for a political culture “hijacked by fear” and addicted to a wasteful military budget. “The way of solving problems requires one fundamental change, a big one,” he intones, “and that is learning that the challenges of our generation are not us versus them, they are not us versus Islam, us versus the terrorists, us versus Iran, they are us, all of us together on this planet against a set of shared and increasingly urgent problems.”
Here is the utopian temperament, the ghost of Munich 1938, the delusional soul that reduces evil to economics and idolizes peace at the expense of human freedom. While Mr. Sachs was waxing eloquent about our shared values, terrorists in Iraq drove a car to a security check point and were waved through because there were two small children in the back seat. They fled the vehicle and blew it up—with the children inside. While Mr. Sachs was dining with fellow appeasers on the BBC expense account, Britain sentenced five men to life in prison for a bomb plot linked to al Qaeda that could have killed thousands of civilians; in addition to chemical weapons, they had hoped to acquire nuclear material to create a dirty bomb.
Not to worry: Such unpleasantness can swiftly be overcome with the right mix of technology, politics and patience. “The issue here is not religious strife that is out of control and boiling over,” says Mr. Sachs. “It’s controllable. It’s a matter of politics, it’s a matter of management, it’s a matter of understanding, it’s a matter of institutions, it’s a matter of how we behave. We have to see how there’s another way. So these are processes, peace is a process.”
Lewis Mumford, who joined Reinhold Niebuhr’s group of “Christian realists” in the 1930s, saw a different and more sinister process at work. “Unless we head off these false hopes, lazy wishful attitudes, and perfectionist illusions, we will continue to defeat all our legitimate expectations and deplete the moral energies we will badly need to achieve the relative goods that will be open to us,” he wrote. “Unfortunately, the spirit of utopianism has not yet been exorcized.”
As Mr. Sachs completes his lecture series this week, now would be a good time to call in an exorcist or two.