Saturday, March 01, 2008

"The Greatest Moral Issue"

Last Sunday in the Washington Post David Kuo, former deputy director of the White House Office on Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, published an op-ed piece titled "It's Not Your Father's Religious Right." The article, which discussed the evolving shape and positions of the so-called "religious right" in the United States, contained this statement about social justice issues, attributed to conservative theologian N. T. Wright: "...the greatest moral issue today is not abortion, but the economic inequality between the United States and Europe and the developing world."

I have a problem with that statement.

Abortion is, of course, a serious moral issue, but I don't believe that "the economic inequality between the United States and Europe and the developing world" is a moral issue at all, regardless of how fervently many well-meaning people of all political persuasions might wish it so.

That such an economic disparity exists and is a problem is beyond dispute. But casting it as a moral issue, as if the wealth and success of the United States and Europe reflects some fundamental immorality of purpose and action is, in my mind, ridiculous.

As I have often pointed out in this space, it's easier to blame the United States and Europe for all the ills of the world than it is to tackle the home-grown problems that give rise to those ills. Many nations in Africa and Asia possess vast wealth in natural resources, yet are desperately poor. Is this the fault of rapacious Americans and Europeans, or of ethnic groups more interested in fighting to maintain their positions and benefits than in working together to solve problems and improve everyone's lot?

America's success grew out of its founding principle of equality of opportunity: your religion, former nationality, or race didn't matter as much as your willingness to work hard and reap the rewards of your efforts. Americans of all backgrounds worked together to build a powerful and vibrant nation that is the reluctant envy of the rest of the world. This, obviously, is an oversimplification: many nationalities (the Irish, Italians, and Chinese come to mind) and races (blacks and Orientals) suffered years of economic and social discrimination before being allowed to reach their full potential...but few other countries have made the efforts the United States has made in addressing those inequalities and ensuring all citizens not of wealth, but of equality of opportunity to obtain wealth. Europe has addressed (and is still addressing) similar problems, but owes its success in the world to similar philosophies.

So is it immoral for America to be rich and Zimbabwe, for instance, to be poor? Not at all. We may have an imperfect president in George Bush, but we elected him freely and generally manage quite well in spite of him; the unfortunate people of Zimbabwe have the deadly and corrupt Robert Mugabe and his cronies who have driven a wealthy nation to the depths of economic disaster. Is it immoral for Mr Mugabe to engineer and preside over such a situation? Absolutely...but it's easier to blame the United States and Europe than for Africans to blame one of their own.

Let's put the moral onus where it belongs. Can the United States and Europe do more to help the rest of the world? Always. Should the rest of the world take more responsibility for fixing its own problems? Definitely.

The world is a big place, and there's room at the table for everyone. Unfortunately, some people and nations are more willing than others to work together to build a better table.

I think that's worth thinking about before we beat our breasts and join the whining masses who would rather heap abuse on the United States and Europe than do the difficult things we have already done to earn our success.

Immoral? If you believe that, I have a bridge you may be interested in buying.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.



John said...

An interesting article. There was much that I didn't agree with but plenty to think about.

Mike said...

I went to the dictionary this time for something that I was pretty sure I knew what it ment but not exactly. It's one of those phrases I've always ment to look up but never did - until now.
I always figured it as a guest editorial in the paper. It's exact translation - OPposite the EDitorial page.

Amanda said...

Economic inequality is definitely not a moral issue. I've always thought that the richer countries of the world have been generous in trying to help the poorer ones. It is not their responsibility and the poorer countries should not just wait for these handouts. Unfortunately, in many instances, the kindness of strangers have been taken so much for granted that it is now looked at as 'their duty'.

I often see this on a smaller scale too where you try to help somebody out once and after that, it becomes something thats expected every time. It almost makes me not want to help but then.......I don't want to be that calculating person.

Anonymous said...

Bilbo, I generally agree with you, but there is definitely a continuum of history and these economically backward countries were, in many cases, shamelessly exploited by the Europeans and US in the not-too-distant past. Certainly, it is not then the FAULT of the US that economic distress continues, especially in places where people like Mugabe rule. But we westerners have often had a hand in creating the economic system those countries have...and even a hand in placing their rulers in power.

So to me there is a moral point here, but I would not go so far as to say it is the most significant moral issue facing us today. I frankly think that's a quick political jab at the folks feeling the pressures of our current poorly-performing economy (as in, they can relate to the issue). I'm not sure WHAT I would say is the number one issue, but taking responsiblity for the economic ills of most of the world is not on my list.
(still working on a screenname; no I will not let you all create one for me!)

Moose said...

Gotta respectfully disagree with you on this one. In Africa, much of the tribal/ethnic warfare results from the arbitrary boundaries drawn by colonial powers. True, there some corrupt and immoral folks in power who capitalize on social turmoil to line their pockets. However, the most desperately poor in Africa do not have the luxury of worrying about much more than where their next meal is coming from. Without education, resources, or opportunity, they are unable to change their situation.

No, the U.S. may not be directly responsible for the consequences of colonialism, especially since the U.S. was once a colony itself. But as a member of the human race, I do think we have some obligation to help those who truly cannot help themselves. The mentally retarded, the very sick, the powerless, and the very young: all these groups rightfully deserve our compassion and good deeds. We are morally obligated to help. It is wrong to let these people suffer from disease, starvation, or ethnic warfare, especially when we, as westerners, played a major role in establishing the conditions that brought these evils to fruition. We, personally, may not have created the messes in the developing world, but our ancestors and our culture (i.e., the western civilization) most certainly contributed.

Practically speaking, there isn't really that much we CAN do to rectify the mistakes of the past. We could as easily redraw borders and unseat corrupt rulers as we could make wheat fields grow in the desert. So, is there a solution? I don't think so. I just hope this world is a better place 30 years from now.

I do think we are morally obliged to at least admit the role we, as the last superpower, play on the global stage. Even now, seemingly unrelated issues profoundly impact the welfare of the many disadvantaged around the world, including our dependence on oil and energy guzzling lifestyle. Sigh, I could go on and on, but I'm getting pretty tired and Leya wants to be held. I think I'll acquiesce. Please forgive any typos or awkward sentences; my eyes are so tired I can hardly hold them open.

Love You,

p.s. - Loved the letter you wrote to Leya.

Anonymous said...

Comment from you know who:

Forhe first time in all your posts, I actually agree with every word you wrote in both your first blog on US/Europe and your "apologia pro summa blogus." We have a human, but not political obligation to help the poor and fatherless, but part of that helping must be to teach them to fish, rather than giving them fish. Feeling guilty for succeeding is fairly common among Westerners, and seems to be a minor down side to the Judeo-Christian heritage. Poverty is always caused by social disorganization at both the national and local level. Improper borders are frequently blamed for the economic situation of Africa (not counting the most northern and southern extremes of that continent. But let us do a thought experiment: What if the borders drawn by the Europeans followed tribal boundaries precisely? As we see all over the world, tribal conflict using modern arms often results in civilian casualties approaching the Holocaust level--Darfur, is just the latest of a series of horrors that could have been the result of "rational" borders. Some European colonies have come out of their colonial experience pretty well, starting with the USA and including India. Colonialism can't be blamed for every human ill, although being a former French, Portuguese, or Belgian Colony makes it a lot harder to become a modern prosperous nation. But it could be done if the local populations studied the history and social organization of the prosperous countries. All current prosperous societies took whatever natural resources they had and by hard work made themselves rich. I might point out that one of the richest countries on earth, Switzerland, has nearly no natural resources, except their people. They got their economic jumpstart by providing the finest mercenaries in Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries, and they turned the capital their soldiering developed in into permanent prosperity by the careful nurturing of a positive political and economic system. Some nations start with the burden of colonialism, but some rich nations started with nothing. We know what works. Responsibility and hard work. I might note that Americans are the hardest working and most productive people on earth. Like that brokerage company, we got our money the old fashioned way: hard work. Just today I learned via the radio that Americans sleep less than any other country. There is no reason to feel guilty when the average American rises at 0530 and turns in at 11 pm. We're getting our money the old fashioned way. We're working hard within a system that generally rewards hard work fairly.