Open Letter to the International Justice Mission
By Walter Block
July 21, 2004
Mr. Gary Haugen INTERNATIONAL JUSTICE MISSION
Dear Mr. Haugen:
I attended your speech at Regent College in Vancouver on 7/14/04; I wanted to comment at that time, but the Q&A period was too limited. So I thought I would share my thoughts with you in this format.
If I had to summarize your speech, it was that callous acts are taking place on a massive scale all throughout the world at present, and it is the duty of Christians to try to stop these outrages. In order to do so, religious people should give up their self-centeredness, and increase their rate of charitable donations (both in terms of money and time) toward these ends.
According to Adam Smith, “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves not to their humanity but to their self love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.” [Wealth of Nations, 1776, p. 14].
What I get from this is not that benevolence does not exist within the human breast. Rather, that it is in very scarce supply. Which means that rational men will want to economize on this rare and precious flower, instead of advocating that it be used promiscuously; realizing it will always be in short supply, instead of thinking it can be radically expanded.
And, there are good and sufficient sociobiological reasons why this should be so. Why we as a species are “hard wired” in this direction. If there were a tribe of cave men who were not primarily interested in number 1, virtually to the exclusion of everyone else, they would have long ago died off. Better yet, if this theoretical tribe focused their limited benevolence widely, instead of narrowly, to their family members, friends and neighbors, they would have gone extinct. We are descended from folk like those; that is why we are the way we are, in the main. Yes, there are some very few exceptions, but they only prove the general rule. We are focused on our narrow little lives, because this was required by our ancestors, as a matter of survival.
I entirely agree with your goals: to reduce or better yet eliminate the massive viciousness that now plagues us, such as the mass murder, slavery, etc., you mentioned so eloquently. But your means toward this end, increasing the level of benevolence in society, and widening its focus, I think are doomed to failure based on these considerations.
You may not have noticed, but all the countries you mentioned as examples of brutality were underdeveloped or retrogressing ones (you called them “developing countries” but that is just a bit of misleading political correctitude you might consider jettisoning). This leads to an alternative means toward eradicating the cruelty: economic development. Happily, Adam Smith again rides to the rescue. The full title of his most famous book is Smith, Adam, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, New York: Modern Library, 1776/1965. His recipe for economic development was, in a nutshell, with some slight reservations: laissez faire capitalism. Murray N. Rothbard, my own mentor, goes much further, and criticizes Adam Smith himself for deviating too widely from this proper goal of full economic freedom (Rothbard, Murray N. 1997. The Logic of Action: Applications and Criticism from the Austrian School, Vol. II, Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar).
The idea was, that government which governs least governs best. Some of my research empirically supports the contention that economic freedom leads to prosperity: Gwartney, James, Robert Lawson and Walter Block. 1996. Economic Freedom of the World, 1975-1995 Vancouver, B.C. Canada: the Fraser Institute. Given that greater wealth reduces man’s inhumanity to man, this is a course of action that should not be overlooked by you and your organization.
It is my contention that if your claim is true that to be a good Christian one must make an effort to stop the massive evils you mentioned, then it is no less true that it is also incumbent upon you to learn why some nations are rich while others are desperately poor. An aphorism might come in handy, here: “Don’t fight the alligators, drain the swamp.” You are fighting alligators; attempting to rescue little Marie or David or Jose. This is all well and good. I salute you for this. Someone has got to do this, as these injustices cry out to the heavens for redress. And, there is such a thing as specialization and the division of labor. But I think you should recognize that there is another and, yes, a better if only because more all-encompassing means toward this end: economic development based on free enterprise.
I emphasize this not so much because of what you said in your formal lecture, which ignored the points I am making, but based on your answer to the very last question asked of you. It was posed by a young lad who I took to be a Regent College seminary student, since his remarks were based on the usual Marxist claptrap taught in such establishments of higher learning. He asked if you were not concerned with systemic problems such as the “economic violence” based on unequal income distribution. (I don’t remember this verbatim, but this was the essence of his stance.) His implication was that western countries ought to increase their level of foreign aid to underdeveloped nations. But this is economic illiteracy of the highest order, as the work of Peter Bauer has stressed over and over again. Instead of verbally slapping down this young man as he richly deserved, you bought into his basic premises, but excused yourself from acting on his principles, properly I thought, on the grounds of the need for specialization and the division of labor. But his socialist premises were wrong, and if implemented, will increase not decrease, the level of brutality in these poor countries.
Now, I admit that there are also good and sufficient sociobiological reasons why free markets are not now the order of the day. If there were not, we would all be living in a laissez faire paradise. (It is my contention that in the cave man days, we became altogether too hard wired into following the orders of the tribal chief. Also, since we lived in very small communities compared to the present day, only direct cooperation seeped into the genetic pool. Cooperating indirectly, through gigantic markets, has come far too late in the history of our species to have been incorporated into our genes.) But this is no reason for intellectuals such as yourself to accept the siren song of socialism.
The rich western countries do not really need capitalism that much; this system in the past has set up the capital, and the legal system, to ensure relative wealth, and thus little internal mass murder. It is the poor nations in Africa and elsewhere that are in the greatest need of free enterprise. Thanks to their enjoyment of relative economic freedom for many years, the capitalist west can now afford a modicum of pernicious socialism. In contrast, free enterprise being virtually unknown in the third world, socialist egalitarianism is the death knell of their economy.
In closing, one last criticism of your presentation: lose that film clip showing a child buyer being tied up by the police. You may not have noticed it, but it also showed a television set in the background. But this implies electricity, and a certain minimal level of prosperity — all totally incompatible with your story of people selling their kids motivated by dire poverty.
I hope you take these remarks in the spirit I mean them: as an attempt to help you with your very good works.
Yours truly, Walter Block Harold E. Wirth Eminent Scholar Endowed Chair and Professor of Economics College of Business Administration Loyola University New Orleans
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