Thursday, August 29, 2002

Some Common Sense About the Earth Summit
Common sense is in short supply in Johannesburg (and in proximity to any UN outpost), but there are some voices of rationality that appear like jewels in the sty of big media sensationalism. For instance, Jerry Taylor tells us in the The American Prowler about Snubbing Johannesburg:
The world's chattering classes are beside themselves over President Bush's decision to stay in Texas rather than travel to Johannesburg, South Africa, over the Labor Day weekend to attend the U.N.'s "World Conference on Sustainable Development." ...

It's not as if there is any serious business on the table in Johannesburg either. No treaties, no protocols, no binding agreements -- just a lot of hand-wringing about how poverty in the Third World is a western conspiracy and a lot of emotional nonsense about the coming collapse of the environment due to our piggish insistence on maintaining a standard of living beyond that of, say, Pakistan. ...

Look at the data. Life expectancy across the globe has shot up over the course of the last two centuries. People are better fed, better clothed, and better housed today than ever before. Inflation-adjusted prices for virtually all resources -- renewable and nonrenewable -- are going down, which points to growing abundance, not growing scarcity. Global forests have, on balance, expanded over the past 50 years. Air and water pollution in the most industrialized nations of the world is a mere shadow of what it was decades ago. Even Third World countries have found that, once per capita income reaches a certain point, economic growth coincides with a cleaner environment. And if current trends in productivity, population growth, and consumption continue, we'll be able to return a chunk of land the size of the Amazonian Basin back to nature by 2070. The human footprint on the environment is indeed becoming lighter and softer.
Similarly sensible is Claudia Rossett in the Wall Street Journal with When It Pays to Be Poor:
Amusing though it is, however, all this planning of the planet would be a lot more agreeable to watch were this summit really a potent force for reducing poverty (step one, by the way, toward a cleaner earth). Instead, something about the bureaucratic blather and sheer industrial scale of this conclave keeps reminding me of a notion put forward by a 19th century scientist, Simon Newcomb, who wrote that from an economic point of view, "The combined willingness and ability of a number of persons in a community to give dimes to beggars constitutes a demand for beggary." The result, wrote Newcomb, is that in such a community, "a certain number are sure to become beggars, and to study the professional accomplishments which will be most likely to draw money from the pockets of the benevolent."

Not that charity in the best sense is a bad thing. There is something in the human soul--and I'd suggest it is one of our better aspects--that wants to help people in real trouble. Giving food to a person who is hungry is a way of satisfying our own more decent instincts. As a private act, it can be loaded with merit.

But when we create huge state-funded bureaucracies to dole out charity--or aid--we produce a class of professional aid administrators, handing out money that is not their own, and creating a class of professional beggars. By this I do not mean the genuinely poor people all this U.N. hoopla is theoretically supposed to help. They can't afford tickets to this summit, let alone pollution rights for eco-neutral travel. And, since the root cause of poverty is not lack of aid, but lack of liberty backed by law, it's safe to say that most of the world's really poor people, in nations such as Vietnam, Rwanda and Uzbekistan, live under regimes that are hardly democratic enough to let anyone represent true "citizen participation." No, the professional panhandlers I'm talking about are by and large the governments with their attendant bureaucracies that make up the "client nations" on the receiving end of this "sustainable development" pajama party.

In that sense, we are about to witness a mighty meeting in Johannesburg of supply and demand, a global gathering of people engaged in vast transfers of money that keeps aid bureaucrats employed and too often helps keep unattractive potentates in power. It's easy to forget that all official aid--doled out by the World Bank, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the United Nations Development Program, the regional development banks and the whole vast caboodle of tax-funded poverty reducers--gets funneled to its erstwhile end-users via the governments of the receiving nations. For bureaucrats and their bosses, on all sides, that's power.
Claudia's clearly trying to spoil Third World Mercedes sales!