W can’t make everybody happy

W has authored an op-ed in the WashPost today about something for which he should be proud: the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) program, which aimed to make AIDS medicine available to Africans. And W should be remembered for this accomplishment:

Early in 2003, there were perhaps 50,000 people in sub-Saharan Africa on AIDS treatment. Today, thanks to America, other donor nations and the tireless work of Africans themselves, nearly 4 million are. Fragile nations have been stabilized, making progress possible in other areas of development.

Even die-hard liberals like Harold Pollack are generously handing out the praise. Finally, something in which left and right can agree on with respect to W, right?

Not so fast. Here’s The Derb throwing cold water on the party:

If George W. Bush, or any other wealthy American, is moved by the plight of AIDS sufferers in Africa, he is free to discharge his feelings by acts of charity. If he were to do so, no-one — no, not even I — would begrudge him the smug self-satisfaction he displays in this op-ed.

There is, however, no virtue in a government official spending your money and mine unless for some reason demonstrably connected to our national interest. AIDS relief in Africa is not so connected, not in any way visible to me.

The subsidizing of expensive medications (the biggest part of our AIDS-relief effort, though not all of it) in fact has long-term consequences more likely to be negative than positive. The high incidence of AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa is caused by customary practices there. What is needed is for people to change those customary practices. Instead, at a cost of billions to the U.S. taxpayer, we have made it possible for Africans to continue in their unhealthy, disease-spreading habits.

Perhaps the future of sub-Saharan Africa would be brighter if the people of that place changed some of their customs; but now, thanks to us, they don’t have to. (A similar point can be made about domestic AIDS-relief funding, currently around $20 billion a year.)

A couple of things:

  • If you have never read John Derbyshire before, be assured that this is very typical.  He represents his own branch of Conservatism and is even a bad fit for The National Review.  If you click the link, note that the commenters can barely stand him.
  • Derb’s branch of Conservatism is not Neo, or Paleo [he is an Atheist], or Libertarian.  No, I have come to appreciate it as Shockleyian, after Bill Shockley, the Nobel Laureate in Physics who became an infamous eugenics proponent.  Derb, like Shockley, is thoroughly grounded in science and appeals to statistics and pure reason for his opinions.  Human foibles and needs really don’t figure much in his universe.  This is sort of how Shockley worked, and they seem to me to be peas in a pod.  Their being of English extraction makes this almost quizzical. [Derb is a better family man than Shockley was, though.]
  • Derb is no dummy and has written what is, in my experience, the best layman’s intro to the Riemann Hypothesis.

That all said for Derb, he is dead wrong about a lot of things here.  Not in his observation that it is smug to be able to claim a mantle of goodness for spending other peoples’ money on a cause.  He is right in a way.   But his line that “[t]he high incidence of AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa is caused by customary practices there.”  No, there are also those born with the disease, or raped, or having caught it through no fault of there own.  It is a real humanitarian issue, one in which the USA has a serious interest – and the unique ability – to make an impact.

And the impact was made, as W lays out.  So what if he is being smug and all magnanimous?  It was the right thing to do.  Derb is witty and all, but he really does live on Planet Shockley a bit too much sometimes.

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Ron Gordon

Math nerd in his early 40's who seems to have an opinion about everything and an inability to keep it to himself.