Blogger Template by Blogcrowds

The Politics of Self-Interest

Some time ago, when I blogged about the problems of US foreign aid, I promised to follow it up with a more theoretical consideration of how capitalism's understanding of generosity underlies the perverse contemporary consensus on foreign policy.  You may have noticed before that I generally try to keep such promises, but am usually very tardy in doing so.  So, here's the payoff on that particular promissory note.

US foreign policy in recent decades displays an odd paradox, which is baffling to internal and external observers alike.  Two recent illustrations got me thinking about this.  First, my father came back from a trip to Israel, and while there, he had talked a lot with his Palestinian guide about the politics of the area.  He learned that the Palestinians' view of the US was not nearly as negative as one might expect--it was in fact rather confused.  For the Palestinians observed that on the one hand the US seemed to support brutal Israeli policy against the Palestinians, making life very difficult for them, and on the other hand, USAID provided a tremendous amount of humanitarian support for the Palestinians, leaving them very grateful.  All in all, it was rather puzzling--with one hand we're beating them, with the other, we're holding out gifts.

The second illustration comes from the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake.  Here we have a country that the US has been raping for decades, leaving it terribly destitute.  But, in the aftermath of the earthquake, the US responds with alacrity, pouring humanitarian resources into Haiti, making all sorts of generous offers, and outdoing any other nation in its willingness to help.  What's the deal here?  If we hated them, why did we help them so much?  If we didn't hate them, why have we been so busy abusing them for so long?  Now, let's steer clear of the most sinister possible answers--that is, that the humanitarian effort was simply an excuse for a fresh military operation.  Let's leave aside (for now) the issues in which America has not been as generous as it purported to be--e.g., continuing to deny Haitians immigration, suspending medical evacuations, etc.

In fact, with both Haiti and Palestine, two more cynical answers suggest themselves.  First, generous foreign aid could simply be a mask, designed to fool other nations into thinking that we're really nice, wonderful people, and distracting them from our much more negative foreign policies.  Still worse, it could be simply another tool of control, giving other countries just enough to make them feel dependent on us and indebted to us, without ever giving them enough to be able to stand on their own two feet without our help.  Both of these are no doubt part of what's going on, and don't really contradict my main point, but I'd like to steer the focus away from these and ask the more difficult question, "Let's have faith that our government really does want to help people, and really is being generous.  How then does that square with the rest of our foreign policy?"

The answer lies, I think, in the capitalist ideal of generosity.  In capitalism, of course, it is maintained that generosity does not operate at the level of ordinary economic exchange--as Smith said, "it is not from the benevolence of the butcher or the baker that we expect to receive our goods, but from their regard to their own interest" (paraphrase from memory).  In our ordinary day-to-day exchanges, we are not expected to be motivated by love of others or any willingness to sacrifice for them, but simply by a desire to advance our own economic interests (within, of course, the bounds of law, though if you can get the law changed, that's always helpful).  But, we are told, this economic system will not undermine generosity, but actually encourage it, for two reasons: 1) since this economic system is more productive than any other, those doing business in this way will have far more resources to spare, and thus will be able to give much more; 2) since charity is necessarily a free, rather than constrained act, an economic system that leaves people free to pursue their own desires, rather than attempting to regulate them, it will encourage people to give much more than they would if they were obligated in some way to generosity.  Of course, there is something to be said for both of these points, to be sure, but I for one am not comfortable with the direction they have led our society.  We have isolated the realms of exchange and charity from one another entirely, so that we are perfectly comfortable being hard-nosed, cutthroat, vicious competitors in the marketplace, even while being benevolent, compassionate, unstinting philanthropists outside of the workplace.  We have accepted as normal the phenomenon of (to pick a very mild example) Pepsi making billions of dollars off of destroying people's health, and meanwhile giving millions to charitable work for disabled people or cancer victims.  Indeed, our whole societies operate on the model of feverishly pursuing wealth, no matter the consequences, and then using some of that wealth to try to mop up the consequences (e.g., the welfare system), rather than putting some controls on the means of wealth acquisition on the front end.  Even most conservative Christians that I know (including myself!) operate on a stingy profit-above-all philosophy in their exchanges, so that they can have a larger income out of which to give their 10% (or perhaps a bit more) to the Church.

This is all very convenient, as avoiding generosity on the front end helps us avoid having to actually make inconveniencing adjustments to our way of life.  As long as we give only out of our surplus, once we're confidently raking in the profits from our self-interested exchanges, then we remain in charge of the situation, completely free to give as much we feel we can; we are not at anyone else's mercy, but they are (quite literally) at our mercy.  As productive as this economic system is, the Bible seems to have a very different view of generosity.  In the Pentateuch's economic laws, it is striking how few of the provisions for the poor are a matter of requiring reactive generosity (e.g., the tithe), and how many are a matter of proactive generosity--regulating the economic mechanisms of society so as to prevent severe privation in the first place (e.g., debt cancellation, usury prohibition, inalienability of land, gleaning laws, etc.).  But I could spend forever talking about this.  Let me hasten on to what was (ostensibly) the main point.

It appears to me that the capitalist model of economic exchange has come to dominate our paradigm for international politics.  Increasingly it seems to be assumed that the responsibility of each nation is to pursue solely its own interest when it engages in diplomacy and enacts foreign policy (not, of course, that this self-interest is always sinister in and of itself, anymore than the butcher or the baker's.)  Granted, it may well be that this has long been the modus operandi of nations, but we seem to have lost most of our shyness in talking this way.  For example, in a recent issue of Imprimis, a publication of Hillsdale College (ironically enough, when I just went there to double-check my source, I found that their most recent article is on the spirit of generosity that American free enterprise encourages, and repeating the cheery myth that America is the most generous nation on earth), they have an essay by US diplomat John Bolton.  Bolton sets out to criticize Obama's foreign policy for (of all things!) saying that "he believes in American exceptionalism in the same way that the British believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism....that America is not so different from other countries....that America’s interest is no different or better than any other country’s interest."  Basically, Bolton was upset that Obama believes that America's job is to work with other countries in pursuing their common interests, rather than simply pursuing its own interests (and a Christian college was promoting this!).  This willingness to negotiate and work together is unacceptable, in Bolton's mind, and he dubs it, in a dazzling leap of logic, "neoisolationism." (!!)   He goes on to sketch the various ways in which Obama has failed to uphold America's interests and where he needs to withdraw the negotiating hand and replace it with a threatening fist.  Whether or not you agree with the specific policy recommendations (which focus on favorite "Axis of Evil" countries like N. Korea and Iran) the rhetoric used to support them is really quite surprising.  Apparently Bolton (and many other conservatives) take it as axiomatic that our job is to promote our own interests.

This does not mean, in their minds, a destruction of generosity, any more than Adam Smith thought his economics would destroy generosity.  Rather, it simply means separating the the sphere of policy and of generosity completely.  We really do feel that we should be generous and help underprivileged nations, but we feel that the best way for us to do that is from a position of uncompromised strength, freedom, and prosperity.  Once we are in such a position, we will have enormous resources to give, and can give without fear of undermining ourselves.  But, to get in such a position, we have to unswervingly seek our own interest in foreign affairs, and we need to use whatever means we can to ensure that America prospers.  We justify this, of course, by saying that what's good for America is good for the world--if we pursue policies that help us prosper, we will use that prosperity for the rest of the world's benefit.  And thus we make life hell for the Palestinians inasmuch as is necessary for our interests in the Middle East, but then come along later to hand them a cup of cold water and give them a pat on the back.  Or we make use of Haiti for decades, leaving it with no native wealth or infrastructure, since this supports our economic interests, and then when we have a couple billion to spare, we (with genuine motives of generosity) pour it into their country to help them recover from an earthquake.

Instead of leaving the corners of the field for the needy, we harvest every square foot and then, when our granaries are full, and the needy are looking really desperate, we give them all that we have to spare and rejoice that God has made us such a generous people.


Wow. This is a biting critique. Great work. I have a feeling that I will be referencing this post for some time.

February 10, 2010 at 9:27 PM  

A very insightful post...quite accurate. I'd like to see the thoughts in the sixth paragraph developed more. It did start to get away from the main point of the post, but is a rich vein to mine in what should Christian Public policy look like.

Eg..the old usury laws that limeted the rate of interest that could be charged fit this paradigm. Modern "conservatives" say getting rid of them allows those who don't qualify for credit at low rates to at least access credit at some could also be said that those who don't qualify for credit below some interest rate, shouldn't get credit in the standard marketplace, but should be the objects of charitable loans or other help.

February 14, 2010 at 8:21 PM  

Thanks Dad. I certainly will be developing the thoughts from that paragraph in due time. But yes, I am convinced that Old Testament usury laws would have a very legitimate application in modern laws against predatory lending....Of course it is true that unless the Church is willing to step in and make sure that people really do give charitable loans, state action to ban predatory loans wouldn't do much good.

February 15, 2010 at 5:18 PM  

Newer Post Older Post Home