Dead Baby Interventionism
by Benjamin Studebaker
Lately I’ve been noticing a new social networking trend–the tendency for people who are passionate about a given humanitarian crisis (examples include Syria, drones in Pakistan, Kony in the Congo–surprisingly, not Mali) to post pictures of various dead, injured, or disfigured babies or children who purportedly were killed, injured, or disfigured over the course of their respective conflicts. Accompanying the pictures is usually some caption designed to engender empathy (one such example I recall was “imagine if this were your child”). This strikes me as somewhat simplistic. Not much critical thought is being given to what the responsibilities of developed states are. Instead, the entire discussion is being reduced to “children are dying, this is bad, developed states can stop bad things, developed states should stop this”. So today I’d like to think about it a little bit deeper than that.
One of the key things about modern states as they exist today is that they are defined by borders and limits. Within a given space of territory, a state’s laws apply. If you are in Maine, you are subject to American law. If you are in Quebec, you are subject to Canadian law. And so it goes. No one would suggest that a Canadian should pay taxes to the US government or follow US law, because Canada and Europe are separate states. By the same token, Canadians do not receive the benefits of US taxation–they are not part of Social Security or Medicare–and Americans do not receive the benefits of Canadian taxation–they do not receive universal state-insured health care. The state can be said to be responsible for the general welfare of its citizens, and, in so far as the state holds up its end of the bargain, citizens are responsible for following laws and paying taxes.
There is no territory on earth that is not claimed by one or more states. Every person on earth is from birth a citizen of one or more states. Correspondingly, every person has a state to which he can appeal. Now, as it has become clear over the years, some states have done a much better job of holding up their end of the bargain–providing for the general welfare–than others. A person in the developed world is discernibly much better off in a variety of objective areas (health, education, security from harm, and so on) than are citizens in most other countries. Developed states have done a comparatively good job against say, the Syrian state. Does it follow from there that developed states are obliged to do the Syrian state’s job for its people (or the Pakistani state’s, or the Congolese state’s, or what have you)?
I say no. I say no for this reason–if states are to defend the general welfare of non-citizens, doing so entails several things:
- It robs citizens of the funds they contributed to the state for the purpose of advancing their own welfare.
- It creates a disincentive for people to seek out the responsibilities of citizenship–if everyone will be given the same consideration by the American state, why go to the trouble of becoming an American citizen, paying American taxes, and following American laws?
- Most importantly, it sets up an arbitrary standard for worthiness of help. Who is to receive help and who isn’t? If citizenship is not the standard, what is the standard?
On the subject of the third point, if we were to choose say “help anyone who lives in a state of repression” or “help anyone who lives below a given poverty line”, it is very likely that the amount of help developed states would consequently be obliged to dispense would bankrupt them, destroy the critical role they serve as global economic engines of growth, and result in more, not less, poverty and misery in developing countries.
Instead, activists try to get our attention about specific cases, often with very emotionalist videos or images depicting human suffering. They ask us to act not because acting is rational but because if we do not act we will feel guilty.
We should instead remember that there was a time when developed states were indeed responsible for the welfare of almost everyone, and it was a time few people, both in developed states and in developing states, regard now as having been a good one–the imperial period. During the imperial period, almost the entirety of the earth’s surface was part of the territory of a developed state. By no account did the imperial states treat their oversees territories half as well as they treated their native populations (and shame on them for this–if a state annexes a territory, it becomes just as responsible for the welfare of the people of that territory as it is responsible for birth citizens). However, it could certainly be cogently argued that say, Syria under the French state was better governed in many respects than Syria under Assad. When the people of the developing world turned away their imperial masters, they became responsible for their own governance and for creating good states of their own design. This is a responsibility they actively sought out. Some of them have not done a good job of it. Now we hear of rebels seeking to topple the bad governments that they themselves or their forefathers created and wilfully submitted to for decades. In many cases, good for them–may they find new governments that provide better for them. If however they would demand the help of developed countries, they must understand that, having turned the developed world away, they have no claim upon it. If the kind of poverty that prevails in the developing world today prevailed today under imperial governments, they would rightfully be able to claim justly that wealth should be redistributed to them so that they might enjoy the basic liberties and welfares owed by governments to all of their citizens regardless of ethnicity, religion, race, sex, or class. Having turned away the imperial governments, they have no such claims on them.
So instead, when the developed countries decide where to intervene and where not to, they look not at the condition of the people living in the foreign countries, people who rejected their laws and gave up their citizenship, but to what the intervention will do for their own people, their own citizens. The French have chosen to help Mali for French reasons, not Malian reasons. The people of Mali will benefit from France’s intervention, but that is happen-stance; France is not in Mali for them. No developed country sees a reason to go into Syria, and so the Syrian people will go unaided. And why should it be otherwise? The Syrian rebels want to be given money, supplies, and weapons without offering anything in return. How is it in the American, the French, the British, the German, or the Russian interest to spend their citizens’ hard-earned tax money on that?
Often times, helping is in the developed interest. Helping sometimes means trade where there was none before, more international support for the helper, eliminating instability or a threat of some kind to the helper’s interests, and so on. But to say that the developed countries should help everyone without any expectation of getting something out of it is to say that the developed countries should give away for free the benefits of good governance. Such benefits have costs–they require tax money, they require economic activity, they require a security apparatus, a set of laws, all manner of things. If the people seeking help will not help to pay that cost, helping them undermines the developed countries’ ability to supply the benefit, not only to foreigners, but to their own citizens.
Of course, those among the world’s poor who are willing to immigrate, to take jobs in rich countries, assist in their development, pay taxes, and follow laws, they are entitled to the benefits of citizenship as much as any native person. And were there to exist a country whose people cried out “please annex our territory and grant us citizenship so that we may pay taxes, follow laws, and contribute to your largesse so that you in return can provide the governance we could not provide for ourselves”, it would be a terrible loss for a developed country not to help itself and said people by taking on the challenge. And should any individual in a developed country be so moved as to wish to help those abroad through the private purse, bully for him. And lest this piece be taken to oppose foreign aid, let it be noted that when foreign countries develop economically, developed countries are enriched through trade. In the long-term, foreign aid could be argued to be a good investment for the dispenser of it. There are indeed many conceptions of the interest of developed countries, and many of those conceptions include quite a lot of helping of foreign peoples and countries, but it should be noted that always, the principle to which these arguments return is that of the national interest of the developed states in question.
These pictures and videos make no appeal to that interest. Consequently, they should have no sway over policy.
The baby pictures are indeed simplistic. However, it could be argued that many failed states are in their current predicament because of the inequitable presence and precipitous departures of imperial nations that left the governing bodies of developing nations in various states of dysfunction and decrepitude. There also many instances of imperial nations deliberately crippling nations, like the Opium Wars in China, which has put the Chinese population in a situation where they are now making iPhones and technology that they could never afford. Not to mention the disgusting things the United States did in South America. To that extent, many developed nations are morally culpable for the current state of affairs in many countries. Obviously some developed states are more responsible than others in a given situation, depending on the historical involvement of said state in the affairs of a developing country.
The concept of a state seems a bit primitive, too. Borders are like these imaginary semi-permeable membranes that might have been beneficial in earlier power struggles, and in the diversification and development of methods of governance, but they make no sense now. Borders in modern times are essentially used to maintain historical inequities that randomly and unjustly subject otherwise comparable human beings to arbitrary economic and social circumstances that are either hugely beneficial, or hugely detrimental, with little grey area. We like to reference Rawls’ Veil of Ignorance when discussing inequity in our own countries, but why is this same argument not extended to our global community of fellow advanced primates? Morality aside, this habit of turning a blind eye to the problems of other countries is going to kill all of us in the end as we confront overpopulation, global warming, poverty, violent crime, and civil unrest generally.
I feel that these are things that should be considered in these situations of global intervention.
Global poverty was not caused by imperialism; it pre-dates it. Countries that are poor were even poorer before developed countries came. They lacked much of the infrastructure, health care, and educational opportunities they came to possess through imperialism (though admittedly, still in insufficient quantity, and alongside numerous injustices and abuses). The cause of global poverty is the fact that certain regions of the world were historically less suitable to large-scale agriculture and were less rich in domesticated animal species. This put some regions of the world at a disadvantage in technological development, one which only widened over the centuries. I would refer you to the argument made in Guns, Germs, and Steel, which I find persuasive:
In the Chinese case, the corrupt imperial Chinese government failed to industrialise and ran its economy into the ground.The modern Chinese government, while flawed, is superior in every way to the imperial government of the 19th century, and the Chinese people benefited from any hastening of its demise brought on by the imperial powers (though indeed, the argument that Opium Wars hastened the demise could be countered with the argument that the imperial powers’ behaviour during the Boxer Rebellion lengthened it).
The Rawlsian argument notes that it is not sensible to redistribute if doing so makes the worst off even worse off. To disregard borders and distribute the world’s wealth without regard to the state structures that produce that wealth eliminates the incentive for people in rich countries to pay high rates of tax. In the long run, this debilitates trade and the rich countries’ ability both to supply poor countries with goods and to purchase goods manufactured in poor countries. Economic integration must come with political and legal integration. If we are to redistribute money from say, the US to Congo, the Congolese must be expected to follow the same laws as the US and to pay taxes to the same state apparatus that maintains and drives the economic prosperity upon which it would become reliant.
I do not argue that we should ignore global problems–they are just that, global. The consequences of say, global warming, will adversely effect the interest of rich nations as well as poor nations. I do not even argue that poverty is necessarily only a concern of poor nations–the richer the world’s poor become, the greater their economic buying power and the greater their potential to drive global development. What I do not accept are cases in which intervention is argued for where there is no discernible long or short term benefit to the intervening nation.
[…] is a running theme in my theory. A while back, I argued that states have duties exclusively to their citizens and not to foreign people on the basis of […]
[…] What, if anything, constitutes a just war? […]
[…] that reasonable foreign policy will once again fail to prevail. The emotional appeal of pictures of dead babies is a difficult thing for nuanced international relations theory to […]
[…] about the United States? I have argued in the past that intervention in places like Syria does not serve American interests. If the administration is […]