Belmont Club

Is Saving Thousands of Migrants from Drowning at Sea Virtue or Cruelty?

Is Saving Thousands of Migrants from Drowning at Sea Virtue or Cruelty?
Migrants and refugees wait to be helped by members of the Spanish NGO Proactiva Open Arms, as they crowd aboard a rubber boat sailing out of control in the Mediterranean Sea about 21 miles north of Sabratha, Libya. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti, File)

Are reports that migrant sea deaths are down due to Italy’s closure of ports to African refugees good or bad news? “Migrant sea deaths in the Mediterranean have dropped to the lowest levels in years, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) reported Saturday.” This mirrors the experience of Australia: “The Rudd government’s dismantling of the Howard government’s successful border protection policies directly resulted in… at least 1200 people (including hundreds of children) perished at sea.” The numbers dropped sharply after border controls were re-established. Then Prime Minister Tony Abbott “told European leaders to simply ‘stop the boats’ flooding to Italy from Libya after up to 1,300 migrants drowned in the Mediterranean in a week… ‘The only way you can stop the deaths is, in fact, to stop the boats.'”

“Cruelty” is one of the Left’s favorite epithets. Adam Serwer contends in the Atlantic that “cruelty is the point” of conservative policies. They are mean for the sake of it.

The Trump era is such a whirlwind of cruelty that it can be hard to keep track. This week alone, the news broke that the Trump administration was seeking to ethnically cleanse more than 193,000 American children of immigrants whose temporary protected status had been revoked by the administration, that the Department of Homeland Security had lied about creating a database of children that would make it possible to unite them with the families the Trump administration had arbitrarily destroyed, that the White House was considering a blanket ban on visas for Chinese students, and that it would deny visas to the same-sex partners of foreign officials.

On the other hand, progressives are compassionate by definition. Thus when conservative cruelty saves multitudes it creates a logical problem. If Italy’s policies are evil, it must be not because they save lives but because Salvini’s motives are impure. If holding out the lure of European residence to Africans causes drowning, it is still compassionate because … it simply is.

That is because atheistic Marxism is founded to an extraordinary degree on the absolving power of good intentions. When CIA agent Felix Rodriguez asked a captive Che Guevara why he executed so many by firing squad in Cuba, Guevara explained that “we only put to death foreigners.” When Rodriguez retorted that “you’re not a Bolivian … you are a foreigner,” Che was defiant, saying Rodriguez couldn’t possibly understand the reasons for revolution. The difference apparently was philosophical. Che killed on the side of compassion while Rodriguez did it in the name of cruelty.

The problem with this argument is it only works if you accept the assumptions, which like everything else in Communism comes from a committee. British intellectual Eric Hobsbawm conceded that the only real failure of Communism was it did not win. The failure was operational, not moral.

In a 1994 interview on BBC British television with Canadian author and politician Michael Ignatieff (whose grandfather and great-grandfather were ministers of the Czar prior to the Bolshevik Revolution), [Hobsbawm] shocked viewers when he said that the deaths of millions of Soviet citizens under Stalin would have been worth it if a genuine Communist society had been the result.

That given moral mandate from history makes revolutionary implacability (don’t call it cruelty) a justifiable virtue. “When Lenin, as a young man, saw his sister taking soup to the poor, he attempted to prevent her on the grounds that, without food, there would be a revolution.” Alberto Korda, the Cuban photographer of Che’s famous picture, said he was drawn to Guevara’s facial expression which showed “absolute implacability.” This notion of pitiless wokeness found its way into Kurtz’s monologue on the moral superiority of the Viet Cong.

I remember when I was with Special Forces–it seems a thousand centuries ago–we went into a camp to inoculate it. The children. We left the camp after we had inoculated the children for polio, and this old man came running after us, and he was crying. He couldn’t see. We went there, and they had come and hacked off every inoculated arm. There they were in a pile–a pile of little arms. And I remember…I…I…I cried, I wept like some grandmother. I wanted to tear my teeth out, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. And I want to remember it, I never want to forget. And then I realized–like I was shot…like I was shot with a diamond…a diamond bullet right through my forehead. And I thought, “My God, the genius of that, the genius, the will to do that.” Perfect, genuine, complete, crystalline, pure. And then I realized they could stand that–these were not monsters, these were men, trained cadres, these men who fought with their hearts, who have families, who have children, who are filled with love–that they had this strength, the strength to do that. If I had ten divisions of those men, then our troubles here would be over very quickly. You have to have men who are moral and at the same time were able to utilize their primordial instincts to kill without feeling, without passion, without judgment–without judgment. Because it’s judgment that defeats us.

We kill for love. You kill for hate. Yet, to the dead, it must have been a distinction without a difference.

The solution of the woke to the Problem of Evil was simply to stipulate the Left was moral and the Right was cruel and that was the end of it. The difficulty even a brilliant writer like Hobsbawm faced is what happened when the facts disagreed. How, socialists wondered, can self-interest produce good? Why are America’s poor fat and driving cars while socialism’s blessed are starving in darkness? How could the virtuous fail?

Tis witchcraft! Or akin to it. To salvage the theory of “capitalist cruelty” versus “socialist kindness”, ideologues have resorted to the mechanism of exploitation. According to that theory, the woke fail because capitalism is stealing from socialism. It’s all the fault of saboteurs, capitalist wreckers and CIA plotters. Yet, even there, the facts betray them. Socialism can only survive, and only temporarily, by expropriating from non-socialists, and in the end by stealing from everyone. Once there are no more capitalists, socialist redistribution stops working. The Venezuelan example is embarrassing for that precise reason.

Perhaps the explanation to the conundrum, as Milton Friedman pointed out in his interview with Phil Donohue, is that no one can rely on committees to define virtue. Virtue is discovered — from God, Nature, Truth — not enacted by thought leaders. The great strength of capitalism lies in its ability to use market signals to eavesdrop on reality.

Friedman: The record of history is absolutely crystal clear that there is no alternative way, so far discovered, of improving the lot of the ordinary people that can hold a candle to the productive activities that are unleashed by a free enterprise system.

Donahue: But it seems to reward not virtue as much as ability to manipulate the system.

Friedman: And what does reward virtue? Do you think the communist commissar rewards virtue? Do you think Hitler rewards virtue? Do you think American presidents reward virtue? Do they choose their appointees on the basis of the virtue of the people appointed or on the basis of their political clout? Is it really true that political self-interest is nobler somehow than economic self-interest? You know, I think you’re taking a lot of things for granted. Just tell me where in the world you find these angels who are going to organize society for us.

Donahue: Well —

Friedman: I don’t even trust you to do that.

Thus capitalism succeeds not because capitalists are virtuous but because it “listens” for virtuous solutions. Its effectiveness lies in having reality and individual choice in charge, with as little intermediation as possible. Is saving thousands from drowning in the Mediterranean virtue or cruelty? Perhaps it is what it is. You be the judge.

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Meditations: A New Translation, by Marcus Aurelius, translated by Gregory Hays. Few ancient works have been as influential as this series of spiritual and ethical reflection by Marcus Aurelius, philosopher and emperor of Rome (A.D. 161–180). It remains as relevant now as it was 2,000 years ago.

An Impeccable Spy: Richard Sorge, Stalin’s Master Agent, by Owen Matthews. The book draws on a wealth of declassified Soviet documents and testimonials to tell the story of Richard Sorge, the man Ian Fleming called “the most formidable spy in history” and John le Carré, “the spy to end spies.” Hiding in plain sight as a foreign correspondent, he infiltrated and influenced the highest echelons of German, Chinese, and Japanese society in the years leading up to and during World War II. His intelligence proved pivotal to the Soviet counteroffensive in the Battle of Moscow, which determined the outcome of the war.

The Mueller Report: Report on the Investigation into Russian Interference in the 2016 Presidential Election, by Robert S. Mueller III. This edition is the full text, Volumes 1 and 2, of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. It is the report and nothing but the report.

The Complete Mediterranean Cookbook: 500 Vibrant, Kitchen-Tested Recipes for Living and Eating Well Every Day, by America’s Test Kitchen. This comprehensive cookbook translates the famously healthy Mediterranean diet for home cooks with a wide range of creative and flavorful recipes, using ingredients available at your local supermarket.

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The War of the Words, Understanding the crisis of the early 21st century in terms of information corruption in the financial, security and political spheres

Rebranding Christianity, or why the truth shall make you free

The Three Conjectures, reflections on terrorism and the nuclear age

Storming the Castle, why government should get small

No Way In at Amazon Kindle. Fiction. A flight into peril, flashbacks to underground action.

Storm Over the South China Sea, how China is restarting history in the Pacific.