Who can resist a tiny baby or small child? The innocence and helplessness are disarming and endearing. When something bad happens to a child, the anguish seems to be intensified. Thus, children are the emotion-laden symbols and sales tools for all sorts of programs and products, whether or not the end results actually help them or even involve them in some profound way more than anyone else.
I recently saw a photograph of an emaciated child nursing at the flattened, dried-up breast of his equally emaciated mother. How do we help them and the rest of the destitute people of the world? There is a famine in Africa, with many hungry people, adults as well as children. Throughout the world there are billions of people struggling to live on the equivalent of a few dollars a day. There must be a solution, and, in fact, there is.
Henry David Thoreau famously wrote "For every thousand people hacking at the leaves of evil, there is one striking at the root." Most people want to help the poor but they join the hackers instead of finding and eliminating the root. They promote boneheaded programs that have proven themselves failures over and over. They support bureaucratic solutions that actually nourish and fertilize the root of the problems. If people want to really help, they should seek out the cause and eliminate it, or at least work to mitigate it.
Throughout the entire history of mankind, there has been only one effective way to lift the masses of people out of poverty. That way is economic freedom and property rights for all. Those societies which today remain mired in constant economic distress are those which deviate from that way, those which impose brutal dictatorship or socialistic control over the economy or, more likely, both. Whatever bad attributes one may wish to associate with free-market-based societies, it is clear that it is much better to be poor in a wealthy country than to be poor in a poor country. There is a striking correlation between economic freedom and the wealth and well-being of a nation's people, especially the poor. Those countries determined to be most free, based on objective measures, are generally far richer and better off in the measures of human welfare, such as health factors, housing, and food availability.
Leaf-hackers especially like programs with feel-good names which conjure up positive images, such as fair-trade, sweat-free, living-wages, and international development programs. It doesn't matter that their foundation is economic fallacy and that such programs hold very little hope of lifting the poor out of their poverty. What is required for that to happen is a basic structural transformation of the governing institutions. The predatory state must be dismantled. Freedom to trade and prosper without confiscation or theft must supplant the incentives to dependence and servitude. Private ownership of property must be protected and nurtured. After all, what is prosperity but the ownership of property? It is certainly a good thing to offer charity to people in need, and people in Africa need serious help because of the position in which they find themselves. But it is not a good thing to promote that charity as the ultimate cure. It is a stopgap at best. It is a tragic fact that development aid does not help people in countries where property rights are weak and free markets are restrained.
The African famine does not result from the cruelty of nature. Dry periods and crop failures happen all over the world on a regular basis. Dry periods in the United States, Europe, or Japan don't result in a famine because people are generally free to trade at prices determined by the market. The fundamental difference with any modern nation subject to famines is that bureaucrats, however well-meaning, prevent markets from allocating resources to where they are most needed. Price controls and limitations of the physical movement of goods create the shortages and starvation, not the actual localized crop failures.
Development aid, while it may be based on good intentions, builds failure into the system for dependent societies. The countries which have long received the most foreign aid are those with corrupt politics and permanent destitution. If we really want to help the poor children of the world, then let's quit the leaves and focus on the root. Poor people don't need our charity to prosper. They need to lose their shackles, to be free to engage in voluntary trade, and to keep the fruits of their labors.
Dan McLaughlin is a columnist for The Post-Journal. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.