Varieties of the Gersonian Experience

A new column by Michael Gerson is best read aloud with an old recording of “€œWe Are The World, We Are the Children”€ playing the background. If there ever was a cross between Paul Wolfowitz, a Sunday school teacher, and Bono it is the former Bush speechwriter.  

Today’s installment certainly does not dissapoint. Here Gerson attacks Fred Thompson for his “€œlack of moral seriousness”€ after the senator balked at supporting George Bush’s massive “€œglobal AIDS initiative.”€

Thompson’s words, which horrified Saint Michael, amount to a pretty standard conservative critique of foreign aid and budget busting “€œhumanitarian programs.”€ First, it’s perfectly natural and moral to take care of your family, friends, and neighbors before trying to save people far away whom you barely understand. Secondly, the kind of lack of accountability and inefficiency that afflicts federal programs will surely be multiplied when the U.S. government tries to manage global poverty and the like. Small private charity can be much more effective.
There is also some pretty solid empirical evidence that Gerson’s beloved humanitarian programs simply ain”€™t what they”€™re cracked up to be.

William Easterly has estimated that the First World has given 450 billion in aid to Africa over the past 40 years, and the economy on the continent has actually declined. A comparison with China, which has received nothing in the way “€œdevelopment”€ grants and was completely isolated from the West for much of Moa’s reign, reveals the way in which long-term historical and civilization factors trump the designs of global bureaucrats. Secondly, while Gerson thinks that relying on private charities is naïve, as David Freddoso has pointed out, during the 2005 Tsunami, individual donations accounted for much more in the way of relief than government funds.

But for Gerson, such talk amounts to “€œanti-government extremism.”€ And, in many ways, trying to argue with him is futile. For Gerson is far more concerned with the great moral uplift involved with aid to Africa, and I imagine he”€™d support massive programs even if it could be irrefutably proven that they did no good.

Gerson sits on the Council on Foreign Relations, and so amidst his maudlin sentimentality, he now likes to make diffuse statements such as, “€œAmerica is engaged in a high-stakes ideological struggle in Africa.”€ But even when discussing geopolitics, he substitutes emotion for analysis. As Daniel Larison observers, “€œFor Gerson, governing isn”€™t a matter of making choices and setting priorities in the American interest, but of unburdening his conscience about suffering on the other side of the world with someone else’s money.”€

For all of Gerson’s pretensions of “€œmoral seriousness,”€ I really can”€™t imagine a more childish, inane political program than that derived from looking upon an AIDS-stricken African single mom and exclaiming, “€œwhy doesn”€™t the government just do something!?!”€ Gerson might as well ask, “€œwith 70% of the earth covered with water, why do some still die of thirst?”€ or “€œwith so much money in the world, why are some people still poor?”€

A more interesting topic: in light of Thompson “€œcallous”€ remarks on foreign aid, and despite his “€œstay the course”€ position on Iraq, does he deserve a second look from conservatives? If someone like Gerson hates him this much, then I”€™m beginning to think he does.  

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