When someone proposes good deeds on a grand scale, one of the assumptions that goes into it is the idea that, if implemented, nothing can go wrong. Since nothing can go wrong, then we never have to worry about who bears the costs if it goes wrong. Since we never have to worry about who bears the costs, we can press for our solution to the crisis we are in. We are eating in the Restaurant of Good Intentions, where no one ever has to pick up the tab.
That word solution is important in this, as is the word crisis. As Thomas Sowell points out in his admirable book The Vision of the Anointed, progressives like to think in terms of “solutions.” Those who do not share the progressive vision think in terms of “trade-offs.” A problem arises, or is assumed to have arisen, and because we want to generate a panicked sense of the need to “act now,” we call it a crisis.
“Global warming is a crisis, I tell you, and no, we can’t study it for a hundred years. We have to act now. We should have acted yesterday, people!” Nothing illustrates the pathetic nature of the modern Republican Party better than the television commericial I saw yesterday with Nancy Pelosi and Newt Gingrich telling us that the one thing they can agree on is the need for concerted action to address “climate change.” Actually, pathetic is far too insipid a word.
But this post is not about climate change. The crises change; the nouns and verbs change. The drill is always the same. The other team wears different jerseys in different games, depending on which Saturday night it is, but they always run the same plays.
So when N.T. Wright addresses the problem of Third World debt, he is looking for a solution to the problem. What would actually happen, were such forgiveness to occur, would be a series of cascading trade-offs. And if any of those trade-offs were to cause serious dislocations, problems or disasters, as I am arguing they would, those who were earlier pressing for solutions don’t know about it. They don’t think that way. They did not anticipate that possible outcome. They did not know that in this restaurant, the waiter eventually brings a bill. They had another appointment that was pressing and so they tennis-shoed it out of here.
No arrangements have been made so that those who were wrong might bear any portion of the cost of being wrong. The cost of being wrong will always be borne by somebody else. Now of course, when any group of people is suffering under the costs of a previous generation’s reforming zeal, a new batch of reformers can always bustle up and propose solutions for them. And they frequently will. But they do not see the interconnectedness of any of this. They have no sense of history. They do not see themselves in a story. They have no imagination.
What do I mean by trade-offs? One billion dollars extended in debt forgiveness is a sum that has trade-offs in three possible directions — where it is going, where it comes from, and where it did not go when it otherwise could have.
We have already addressed the possible problem of where it could go — keeping a dictator in power, for example, feeding his army. We have also touched on the problem of the unwilling donors (investors in irresponsible banks, taxpayers who have to bail out irresponsible banks, or taxpayers who have to bail out wicked countries directly via foreign aid). The money they lose is money they cannot use. Had that billion dollars remained with the original owners, they would have had the use of it. All the good that would have been done by that means will not now be done. But that missing good cannot be photographed, televised, or interviewed because it didn’t happen. And it is similar with the billion dollars that, had it remained safely invested with the banks, could have been loaned to entities that would have been a good risk, and would have provided a good return. What would they have done with it? Who would have been employed as a result of that? Who would have been fed as a result of wise investments? We shall never know.
Now this does not mean that we should never write off a bad debt, or that debt forgiveness is automatically a bad thing. It is not. But whenever we take action like this, it is paramount that we understand what we are doing. We should have examined the trade-offs, and determined carefully that this is the action we should take. But the tunnel-vision of do-gooding solutions does not understand this at all. They only see unmitigated good coming from good intentions, and they chafe whenever anybody raises pointed questions. Those who raise questions must be perverse somehow. “Why do you hate the poor so much?” — hating the poor being equated with getting underfoot when invincible good deeds are in process.