The Stone City

Words Made to Last

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

The Virtue of Understanding Selfishness

The "Law of Unintended Consequences" has surfaced enough times that one would think it would be a part of policy-makers' thinking by now. When considering any policy, we should consider how it will be used by those affected.

The classic example is welfare. Unlimited-life benefits amounting to a wage substantially above the norm for unskilled labor led, amazingly enough, to a permanently dependent underclass. New York's apparent coup in using Federal money, on top of its own, to make generous welfare payments made the city a welfare magnet. At this point, the lesson is clear enough that only a die-hard few choose to ignore it.

But in making foreign policy, the babes in the woods have not yet realized they are lost. They are often admirable people, like Christine Ahn of Food First (perhaps), who said in December:

Most experts agree that complex factors played a role in North Korea's famine, most of which were events beyond the control of the government. The country's slide towards famine began with diminishing agricultural production in the 1980s. Then, in 1991, the socialist-trading bloc collapsed with the disintegration of the Soviet Union, and North Korea's agricultural system went into a tailspin....
If we truly care about the human rights of North Korean people, peace and engagement, not war and sanctions, must be the foundation to promote and protect human rights there.

Notice how events which do not appear to be beyond the government's control are carefully couched in the passive voice. Even better, the observed failure of the Soviet government is seen as excusing the (very similar) North Korean government, rather than showing the brutal failure of its premises. But most telling is the thing which is missing altogether from this discussion: what if there is no connection between food aid and the hunger of these people? What if food aid is only one more weapon to use against any restive provinces? In short, what if the rulers of North Korea are more concerned with their own power than with their people -- if they are selfish?

The same issue shows up in evaluating the United Nations. Those who favor multilateralism and argue that the UN provides the appropriate framework for resolution of most disputes, simply by framing that argument, are glossing over the problem of how the UN may be manipulated. What if the UN charter protects dictators and allows small acts of aggression by setting a high standard for retaliation -- or, in the alternative reality, provides diplomatic cover which makes war easier? What if members of the UN know this? What if the UN elites are not motivated by altruism, but enjoy their sinecures as permanent tourists -- if they are selfish?

The American left sometimes accuses conservatives of selfishness, but it would be more accurate to say that conservatism arises from an understanding of selfishness. Not everyone wants to play on a level field; not every treaty is honored; not every enemy can be negotiated with.