Sympathy Deformed

Outside Reading: Sympathy Deformed


The author explains how compassion and well-meaning people can destroy the poor with their misguided actions. He illustrates the principle with his personal experiences and the history of Tanzania.

From: City Journal

Sympathy Deformed

Theodore Dalrymple

Misguided compassion hurts the poor.

To sympathize with those who are less fortunate is honorable and decent. A man able to commiserate only with himself would surely be neither admirable nor attractive. But every virtue can become deformed by excess, insincerity, or loose thinking into an opposing vice. Sympathy, when excessive, moves toward sentimental condescension and eventually disdain; when insincere, it becomes unctuously hypocritical; and when associated with loose thinking, it is a bad guide to policy and frequently has disastrous results. It is possible, of course, to combine all three errors.

No subject provokes the deformations of sympathy more than poverty. I recalled this recently when asked to speak on a panel about child poverty in Britain in the wake of the economic and financial crisis. I said that the crisis had not affected the problem of child poverty in any fundamental way. Britain remained what it had long been—one of the worst countries in the Western world in which to grow up. This was not the consequence of poverty in any raw economic sense; it resulted from the various kinds of squalor—moral, familial, psychological, social, educational, and cultural—that were particularly prevalent in the country (see “Childhood’s End,” Summer 2008).

My remarks were poorly received by the audience, which consisted of professional alleviators of the effects of social pathology, such as social workers and child psychologists. One fellow panelist was the chief of a charity devoted to the abolition of child poverty (whose largest source of funds, like that of most important charities in Britain’s increasingly corporatist society, was the government). She dismissed my comments as nonsense. For her, poverty was simply the “maldistribution of resources”; we could thus distribute it away. And in her own terms, she was right, for her charity stipulated that one was poor if one had an income of less than 60 percent of the median national income.

This definition, of course, has odd logical consequences: for example, that in a society of billionaires, multimillionaires would be poor. A society in which every single person grew richer could also be one in which poverty became more widespread than before; and one in which everybody grew poorer might be one in which there was less poverty than before. More important, however, is that the redistributionist way of thinking denies agency to the poor. By destroying people’s self-reliance, it encourages dependency and corruption—not only in Britain, but everywhere in the world where it is held.

I first started thinking about poverty when I worked as a doctor during the early eighties in the Gilbert Islands, a group of low coral atolls in an immensity of the Central Pacific. Much of the population still lived outside the money economy, and the per-capita GDP was therefore extremely low. It did not seem to me, however, that the people were very poor. Their traditional way of life afforded them what anthropologists call a generous subsistence; their coconuts, fish, and taros gave them an adequate—and, in some respects, elegant—living. They lived in an almost invariant climate, with the temperature rarely departing more than a few degrees from 85. Their problems were illness and boredom, which left them avid for new possibilities when they came into contact with the outside world.

Life in the islands taught me a lively disrespect for per-capita GDP as an accurate measure of poverty. I read recently in a prominent liberal newspaper that “the majority of Nigerians live on less than $1 a day.” This statement is clearly designed less to convey an economic truth than to provoke sympathy, evoke guilt, and drum up support for foreign aid in the West, where an income of less than $1 a day would not keep body and soul together for long; whereas it is frequently said that one of Nigeria’s problems is the rapid increase in its population.

As it happens, an island next door (in Pacific terms) to the Gilbert Islands was home to an experiment in the sudden, unearned attainment of wealth. Nauru, a speck in the ocean just ten miles around, for a time became the richest place on earth. The source of its sudden riches was phosphate rock. Australia had long administered the island, and the British Phosphate Commission had mined the phosphate on behalf of Australia, Britain, and New Zealand; but when Nauru became independent in 1968, the 4,000 or so Nauruans gained control of the phosphate, which made them wealthy. The money came as a gift. Most Nauruans made no contribution to the extraction of the rock, beyond selling their land. The expertise, the management, the labor, and the transportation arrived from outside. Within just a few years, the Nauruans went from active subsistence to being rentiers.

The outcome was instructive. The Nauruans became bored and listless. One of their chief joys became eating to excess. On average, they consumed 7,000 calories per day, mainly rice and canned beef, and they drank Fanta and Château d’Yquem by the caseload. They became the fattest people on earth, and, genetically predisposed already to the illness, 50 percent of them became diabetic. It was my experience of Nauru that first suggested to me the possibility that abruptly distributing wealth has psychological effects as well as economic ones.

I next spent a few years (1983 to 1986) in Tanzania, a country that presented another experiment in treating poverty as a matter of maldistribution. Julius Nyerere, the first—and, until then, the only—president, had been in charge for more than 20 years. His honorific, Mwalimu—Teacher—symbolized his relation to his country and his people. He had become a Fabian socialist at the University of Edinburgh, and a more red-blooded one (according to his former ally and foreign minister, Oscar Kambona, who fell out with him over the imposition of a one-party socialist state) after receiving a delirious, orchestrated reception in Mao’s China.

One can say a number of things in Nyerere’s favor, at least by the standards of postindependence African leaders. He was not a tribalist who awarded all the plum jobs to his own kind. He was not a particularly sanguinary dictator, though he did not hesitate to imprison his opponents. Nor was he spectacularly corrupt in the manner of, say, Bongo of Gabon or Moi of Kenya. He was outwardly charming and modest and must have been one of the only people to have had good personal relations with both Queen Elizabeth II and Kim Il-sung.

Nyerere wished the poor well; he was full of sympathy and good intentions. He thought that, being so uneducated, ignorant, and lacking in resources, the poor could not spare the time and energy—and were, in any case, unqualified—to make decisions for themselves. They were also lazy: Nyerere at one point complained about the millions of his fellow countrymen who spent half their time drinking, gossiping, and dancing (which suggested to me that their lives were not altogether intolerable).

But Nyerere knew what to do for them. In 1967, he issued his famous Arusha Declaration, named for the town where he made it, committing Tanzania to socialism and vowing to end the exploitation of man by man that made some people rich and others poor. On this view of things, the greater accumulation of wealth, either by some individuals or by some nations, could be explained only by exploitation, a morally illicit process. The explanation for poverty was simple: some people or nations appropriated the natural wealth of mankind for themselves. It was therefore a necessary condition of improvement, as well as a form of restitution, that they no longer be allowed to do so and that their wealth be redistributed. So Tanzania nationalized the banks, appropriated commercial farms, took over all major industry, controlled prices, and put all export trade under the control of paragovernmental organizations.

There followed the forced collectivization of the rural population—which is to say, the majority of the population—into Ujamaa villages. Ujamaa is Swahili for “extended family”; as Nyerere insisted, all men were brothers. By herding the people into collectivized villages, Nyerere thought, the government could provide services, such as schools and clinics. After all, rich countries had educated and healthy populations; was it not evident that if the Tanzanian people were educated and healthy, wealth would result? Besides, collectively the villagers could buy fertilizer, perhaps even tractors, which they never could have done as individuals (assuming, as Nyerere did, that without government action there would be no economic growth). Unfortunately, the people did not want to herd fraternally into villages; they wanted to stay put on their scattered ancestral lands. Several thousand were arrested and imprisoned.

The predictable result of these efforts at preventing the exploitation of man by man was the collapse of production, pauperizing an already poor country. Tanzania went from being a significant exporter of agricultural produce to being utterly dependent on food imports, even for subsistence, in just a few years. Peasants who had once grown coffee and sold it to Indian merchants for soap, salt, and other goods uprooted their bushes and started growing meager amounts of corn for their own consumption. No reason existed for doing anything else because growers now had to sell their produce to paragovernmental procurement agencies, which paid them later, if at all, at derisory prices in a worthless currency that peasants called “pictures of Nyerere.”

Nyerere blamed shortages of such commonplaces as soap and salt on speculators and exploiters, rather than on his own economic policies. He made the shortages the pretext for so-called crackdowns, often directed at Indian traders, which eventually drove them from the country. Nyerere’s policies were no more soundly based than those of Idi Amin, who drove out the Indians more brutally. Anti-Semitism, it has often been said, is the socialism of fools. I would put things another way: socialism is the anti-Semitism of intellectuals.

With foreign exchange exhausted, only the funds that the honey-tongued Nyerere continued to obtain from the World Bank and foreign donors enabled the country to avoid mass starvation. By the time I reached Tanzania, the country had become completely dependent on handouts. Aid represented two-thirds of Tanzania’s foreign-exchange earnings; one might say that its largest export was requests for such aid. In the rural area where I lived, the people dressed in hand-me-downs sent by European charities. A single egg was a luxury. One of the goals that had induced Nyerere to move to socialism, ironically, was national “self-reliance.”

The foreign aid that allowed Nyerere’s policies to continue well after the economic disaster was evident had precisely the baleful effects that Peter Bauer, the development economist who contradicted the professional orthodoxies of his time, predicted. The aid immensely increased the power of the sole political party by giving its officials control over scarce goods. When I was in Tanzania, you needed political connections to buy even a bottle of beer—the famous local monopoly brand, Safari, which, the saying went, caused you to pass directly from sobriety to hangover without passing through drunkenness. The regime provided ample opportunities for corruption. Most Tanzanians were slender; you could recognize a party man by his girth.

Thanks to foreign aid, a large bureaucracy grew up in Tanzania whose power, influence, and relative prosperity depended on its keeping the economy a genuine zero-sum game. A vicious circle had been created: the more impoverished the country, the greater the need for foreign aid; the greater the foreign aid, the more privileged the elite; the more privileged the elite, the greater the adherence to policies that resulted in poverty. Nyerere himself made the connection between privilege and ruinous policies perfectly clear after the International Monetary Fund suggested that Tanzania float its currency, the Tanzanian shilling, rather than maintain it at a ridiculously overvalued rate. “There would be rioting in the streets, and I would lose everything I have,” Nyerere said.

Long years of living under this perverse regime encouraged economically destructive attitudes among the general population. While I was impressed by the sacrifices that Tanzanian parents were willing to make to educate their children (for a child to attain a certain stage of education, for example, a party official had to certify the parents’ political reliability), it alarmed me to discover that the only goal of education was a government job, from which a child could then extort a living from people like his parents—though not actually from his parents, for he would share his good fortune with them. In Tanzania, producing anything, despite the prevailing scarcity of almost everything, became foolish, for it brought no reward.

When I returned to practice among the poor in England, I found my Tanzanian experiences illuminating. The situation was not so extreme in England, of course, where the poor enjoyed luxuries that in Tanzania were available only to the elite. But the arguments for the expansive British welfare state had much in common with those that Nyerere had used to bring about his economic disaster. The poor, helpless victims of economic and social forces, were, like Ophelia in the river, “incapable of their own distress.” Therefore, they needed outside assistance in the form of subsidies and state-directed organizations, paid for with the income of the rich. One could not expect them to make serious decisions for themselves.

This attitude has worked destruction in Britain as surely as it has in Tanzania. The British state is today as much a monopoly provider of education to the population as it is of health care. The monopoly is maintained because the government and the bureaucratic caste believe, first, that parents would otherwise be too feckless or impoverished to educate their children from their own means; and second, that public education equalizes the chances of children in an otherwise unequal society and is thus a means of engineering social justice.

The state started to take over education in 1870, largely because the government saw a national competitor, Prussia, employing state power to educate its children. But practically all British children went to school already: according to the calculations of economist and historian E. G. West, 93 percent of the population was by then literate. It is true that the British state had started providing support to schools long before, but in 1870, 67 percent of school income still came from the fees that parents paid.

Not all British children received a good education before the state intervened: that was as vanishingly unlikely then as it is today. But it is clear that poor people—incomparably poorer than anyone in Britain today—were nonetheless capable of making sacrifices to carry out their highly responsible decisions. They did not need the state to tell them that their children should learn to read, write, and reckon. There is no reason to suppose that, left alone, the astonishing progress in the education of the population during the first three-quarters of the nineteenth century would not have continued. The “problem” that the state was solving in its destruction of the voluntary system was its own lack of power over the population.

As in Tanzania, the state-dominated system became self-reinforcing. Because of the high taxation necessary to run it, it reduced the capacity and inclination of people to pay for their own choices—and eventually the habit of making such choices. The British state now decides the important things for British citizens when it comes to education and much else. It is no coincidence that British advocates of the cradle-to-grave welfare state were great admirers of Julius Nyerere—who, incidentally, has been proposed for Roman Catholic canonization, thus bringing close to reality Bauer’s ironic reference to him as Saint Julius.

The only time I ever saw Nyerere in person was in Dodoma, the dusty town designated to become Tanzania’s new capital. He was expected to drive by, and by the side of the road sat a praise singer—a woman employed to sing the praises of important people. She was singing songs in praise of Nyerere, of which there were many, with words such as: “Father Nyerere, build and spread socialism throughout the country and eliminate all parasites.”

The great man drove past in a yellow Mercedes. The praise singer was covered in dust and started to cough.

Theodore Dalrymple, a physician, is a contributing editor of City Journal and the Dietrich Weismann Fellow at the Manhattan Institute. His latest book is The New Vichy Syndrome: Why European Intellectuals Surrender to Barbarism.