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:

  1. It robs citizens of the funds they contributed to the state for the purpose of advancing their own welfare.
  2. 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?
  3. 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.