Whenever the world gets into serious difficulties, whether owing to acts of men (i.e., “man-caused disasters”) or an act of God, it is almost always the United States that steps in to save the day. And what it generally gets for its troubles are tirades of denunciation and cataracts of resentment. As we know, the United States is the major contributor to the Haitian relief effort, yet it has already been condemned by Venezuela, by Bolivia, by France, and by several other European countries for launching an “occupation” of the island. America, as the leading member of NATO, bombed Serbia into the ground to rescue the Muslim peoples of Bosnia and Kosovo from the ethnic cleansing campaign unleashed by Slobodan Milosevic. What it has reaped for its good intentions is a thriving Kosovan drug cartel, the increased animosity of the Islamic world, and a new spate of jihadist terror, both abroad and on its own soil. And we remember the Marshall Plan, without which the continent of Europe, which essentially attacked itself in a suicidal, internecine conflict, would today be a dismal backwater, perhaps even a congeries of ex-Soviet republics. For this act of unprecedented munificence, Americans are regarded by many Europeans as vulgar capitalists, crass unsophisticates, and cowboy warmongers.
Perhaps it’s time to “recalibrate.” The U.S. has more than its share of poverty, unemployment, injustice, and destabilizing threats emanating from its own homegrown Islamic institutions against which at least some of the resources it has expended overseas could be put to better and more immediate use. The world will always be in dire straits — and the United States, unlike powerful nations such as Russia and China, will mobilize its diminishing abundance to bring aid and relief to suffering populations. And it will get little or no credit for its efforts. Indeed, American assistance is practically expected and in some cases demanded as an obligation that accrues to American status. Maybe this is unimportant in the grander scale of things but I suggest it is a factor to be assessed.
Other developed nations as well have done all they could to alleviate suffering in the world at large, ready to contribute with supplies, medicines, money, and personnel in times of calamity. Canada, Japan, and Israel come instantly to mind. Nevertheless, despite the horrors and catastrophes which strike indiscriminately around the world and our laudable attempts to bring comfort and relief to the innocent victims of these upheavals, a more reasonable balance is needed between foreign expenditures in the service of others and domestic investment to assist our own underprivileged. There is only so much prosperity to go around.
Whether it is Haiti or “Palestine” or southeast Asia, we empty out our pockets to help, we send convoys of assistance, and we accept streams of displaced persons, refugees, and welfare recipients, straining our abilities to the limit. And our recompense, apart from a sense of easy self-congratulation, is often the rancor and vexation of many of our beneficiaries: we were too slow off the mark, the distribution networks put in place were deficient, we have not done enough to sustain or resettle or donate (a typical United Nations complaint, as per UN relief coordinator Jan Egeland castigating the United States for being “stingy”), or we have a secret colonial agenda insinuating itself as magnanimity and concern. (In the case of Israel, it might be organ harvesting, as a clearly demented but likely influential YouTube commenter has imputed.) Some degree of rethinking may be necessary.
What I have said here will be censured by many as cruel, heartless, cynical, and isolationist. It is none of these. The desire to help people who have been laid low by war or natural disasters or endemic destitution is a noble impulse, but it must be constrained — not canceled but moderated — by limitations of affordability, common sense, and the recognition of critical indigenous problems, both at home and in the recipient countries, as well as the political ramifications in the global theater. It must also take into account the capacities of the taxpaying citizen who is the benefactor of last resort.
As an individual Canadian citizen with a modest income at his disposal, I am taxed almost beyond my means. Yet I see a considerable portion of my taxable income going to NGOs that support tyrannical regimes and rogue states; to China, of all places, whose exports far dwarf our own; to a United Nations that is nothing less than a quagmire of corruption, hypocrisy, and ineptitude; to the World Bank, which has initiated a cycle of dependence through the dispensation of ineffectual aid to dysfunctional nations; and to relief efforts to regimes that do not reciprocate even in the currency of gratitude.
I would have no objection to bearing an oppressive tax load if I saw the money that is often cast to the indifferent winds going instead to help those of my fellow citizens who are struggling to survive: the unemployed, the homeless, the infirm, and the aged. We are ranked as one of the wealthier countries in the world. At the same time, the number of Canadians who live below the poverty line (according to various statistical reports, the low-income cutoff range varies between 10.8% and 16.2%), who cannot receive adequate medical attention or afford the price of pharmaceutical medicines, who lie on gurneys in the corridors of what look like third-world hospitals (nearly 690,000 for the year 2009 in my home province of Quebec alone, if they are fortunate enough to survive the interminable wait times for admission), who malinger in decrepit “senior residences,” who live on the street in a land of punishing winters (the CBC pegs the number of the shelterless at a quarter of a million), and who have finally surrendered to despair is a spreading blot of shame upon our society. I do not have access to comparable American statistics, but, adjusting for population, I would presume they are not appreciably different.
Lest I be misunderstood, I would like readers to know that my wife and I give generously to charity, both local and foreign. This is nothing less than a civic and humanitarian duty. Still, I believe that Confucius was right when he deposed in the Analects that responsibility begins at home, starting with one’s family and moving outward to one’s community and thence to one’s country. The world, so to speak, comes later — unless, of course, events beyond our borders impact directly upon home and country. In such cases, we must obviously intervene there so that disaster does not strike here — a preemptive application of the Analects.
As Bret Stephens writes in the Wall Street Journal, aid schemes to underdeveloped nations benefit mainly “the well-connected at the expense of the truly needy, divert resources from where they are needed most, and crowd out local enterprise.” All this works, he continues, “to salve the consciences of people whose dimly benign intention is to ‘do something.’” With respect to Haiti, for example, the largesse that has been pouring in for years resulted in neither a functioning infrastructure nor quake-resistant buildings. But it did enrich a cohort of unscrupulous individuals, not least the former president, liberation theologian Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
I recall several years back asking a Haitian taxi driver in Montreal, which boasts one of the largest Haitian communities in North America, what measures he would recommend to rescue the island from its ongoing squalor, penury, and dereliction. More aid? “No,” he replied, “we need to be reoccupied.” My interlocutor would have been outraged by the witless comments of Seumas Milne of the Guardian, who called the effects of the recent earthquake “man-made” and blamed the devastation on the poverty imposed on Haiti by Western nations. This, of course, is abject nonsense, but it is an infallible sign of the vapid simpering and righteous indignation that vitiates much Western thinking.
The fact is that another approach is required. I am not arguing that we remain oblivious to the tragedy of others or that foreign aid should be discontinued, as Stephens seems to propose. But I do contend that such disbursements must be applied more intelligently and with stringent oversight so that they find their way into the hands of the right people and go to promote a culture of security, initiative, and entrepreneurial vitality. Just as importantly, the aid bonanza must be curtailed. Many of our own are in want. Tax money should go mainly into retraining programs, new start-ups, available housing, better hospitals, more doctors and nurses, cleaning up the bureaucratic deadwood, fostering a saner business climate, research and development, and projects to help people get on their own two feet again. Whatever surplus may be left over from a target budget intended to resolve or alleviate our own pressing dilemmas may then be designated to help strangers in need — assuming we can do it properly.
But we need to get our priorities straight. Let us give what we can to those who have been persecuted by man or nature, let us help to the best of our abilities, let us make sacrifices, if we wish, for the deliverance of suffering humanity. But let us also see clearly. The game of realpolitik, for example, of seeking influence in other parts of the globe through excessive aid liberality, should not be allowed to trump the reality of our domestic predicaments or distract from internal necessity. Nor should we act out of some absurd sense of neo-colonial guilt or a facile empathy that ignores our own grievous distress. There are vast areas of misery and deprivation in our own lands that have not been meaningfully addressed and will continue to fester unless we rein in our brackish sentimentality and determine to help not only our “fellow man” but, to a far greater extent than at present, our neighbors and our fellow citizens. They, too, are part of “the world.” And they take precedence.