For only ten dollars a day or a month you can feed all the starving children in Africa. For only the price of a cup of coffee a year, you can make sure that no one in Kansas City ever goes hungry again. For just a third of your paycheck, you can subsidize a vast bureaucracy that will conduct studies on the best way to save the world and then come up with proposals that will only cost you half your paycheck.
This misplaced philanthropic confidence is the idiot stepchild of a free enterprise society where anything can be accomplished for the right price. Do you want to build a house on the edge of a cliff? Do you want to play on every golf course in the world? Do you want to clone a dinosaur so you can hunt it?
It hasn’t been done yet, but it’s probably doable.
So why can’t we end world hunger for only the price of a cup of coffee every six seconds or forty percent of the national debt or some other appealing figure that looks good on an infographic?
Hunger isn’t a resource shortage problem. The Soviet dissident writer Vladimir Voinovich told an American cab driver about meat rationing in the USSR. The cab driver demanded to know why people didn’t just set up more chicken farms. Voinovich tried to explain to the incredulous driver that under Socialism, setting up more chicken farms doesn’t produce more chickens.
The USSR had plenty of land, labor and experts. It went from exporting wheat to importing wheat despite throwing everything it had into agriculture because there was a disconnect at every level in the process of planning and production. Like a sack race with three hundred legs in one sack, the harder the USSR tried to increase yields and production, the worse they became.
Sending the USSR food, as the United States repeatedly did from its early years when Hoover fought famine with an army of aid workers to its waning days when the Evil Empire went deep into debt buying American wheat, didn’t solve anything. Soviet attempts at copying American successes in agriculture actually backfired leading to worse disasters. The only solution to the USSR’s agriculture problems came with the collapse of Soviet feudalism whose central planning had created the meat shortages and bread shortages.
Most “hungry” countries aren’t Communist, but they are dysfunctional. They aren’t going to be fixed for the price of a cup of coffee a day, an hour or a second. Hundreds of billions of dollars have been poured into Africa and it’s the opinion of African economic experts that the money did more harm than good by crippling developing economies with a weak global social safety net.
Every “free” item sent to another country is one item that isn’t going to be sold or manufactured there. An aid economy works a lot like a regular economy except that it can’t sustain domestic production or domestic experts. Its doctors move to the West and are replaced by Western professionals who enjoy the philanthropic credentials of helping out in an exotic country.
An aid economy is planned, instead of responsive, and depresses local production without fully satisfying local demand leaving the population in a state of semi-deprivation. The aid never reaches the people who need it because of the corruption that caused the deprivation that made the aid necessary. This cycle of corruption feeds an aid economy by knocking out the middle class who might otherwise step into the roles of merchants and professionals and rewards anyone with enough guns to hijack the aid and shake down the charities that distribute it.
Trying to save Africa for the cost of a cup of coffee a day has made it a much worse place. And that’s as true of the United States as it is of Africa.
Domestic warlords don’t have child soldiers who drive around with machine guns on pickup trucks. Instead they wear suits, coordinate with community organizers and clamor for more money for broken inner city neighborhoods so they can siphon it off. There are parts of the United States that are just as broken as any Third World country because they run on the same aid economy that rewards political warlords and discourages independence and initiative.
Activists and politicians announce that for only twenty billion or two hundred billion we can end world hunger, educate every child or give every family their own cow. These proposals apply the free enterprise logic of solving a problem by “buying” a solution. But helping people isn’t mass production. Throwing more money and people at the problem makes it that much harder to solve.
Buying a homeless man a sandwich for two dollars feeds that man. Appropriating twenty billion dollars to feed a sandwich to every homeless man in America will only provide sandwiches to a small percentage of the homeless at a cost of four thousand dollars a sandwich.
Once you try to buy sandwiches for millions of homeless men, the sandwich money is eaten up by the expenses of studying how to identify the homeless, learning what kind of sandwiches they would like, studies on marketing sandwiches to homeless people over social media, the costs of diversity training for the sandwich makers and a million other things.
You can buy a homeless man a sandwich, but you can’t buy them all sandwiches because once you do that, you are no longer engaging in a personal interaction, but building an organization. You don’t need a homeless man to exist so that you can buy him a sandwich, but once an agency exists that is tasked with buying homeless men sandwiches; it needs the homeless men to exist as ‘clients’ so that it can buy them sandwiches and buy itself steak dinners.
The biggest piece of the aid economy is in the hands of the aid organizations that profit from an unsolvable problem that they have no interest in solving. Africa’s misery is their wealth. The worse Africa becomes the more incentive the guilty of the West will have to pour money into their latest plan to buy everyone in Africa a goat, a laptop or a sandwich.
The aid recipients, distributors and providers have achieved a dysfunctional equilibrium. In aid economies, the scale of the problem grows slightly faster than the amount of aid and activists hold out the tempting promise that by increasing spending to stay ahead of the problem, it can be solved completely.
But the West can’t fix Africa no matter how much of the price of a cup of coffee it donates.
No one can save Africa except Africans. No one can fix Detroit except the people who live there. Social problems aren’t solved by nationalizing them or internationalizing them. They aren’t solved by guilt-tripping those who have already solved those problems and live thousands of miles away, but by engaging the people who live right there and are part of the problem.
If a man is drowning, you toss him a rope. But if a man jumps into the water, tossing him a rope doesn’t accomplish anything. A physical problem can be solved by applying the right resources, but a problem rooted in attitudes and behavior can only be solved when the people change.
Trying to solve a problem rooted in behavior with monetary rewards only perpetuates that behavior. Instead of saving the world, throwing money at it destroys it instead.
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