At this morning’s Mass, our pastor, Monsignor Christopher Heller, reminded us in his homily of the reception that Mother Teresa of Calcutta received when she castigated the First World – the United States most emphatically included – for “sleeping soundly at night when there are people with nothing to eat.” It was unfriendly, to say the least. Especially here in the U.S., the most charitable nation in human history. But no one likes to be criticized, as Father Chris said (and we all know perfectly well).
That includes Mother Teresa.
Mother Teresa was a giant of compassion and selfless labor for the sake of others. There can be no criticism of that. However, to be maximally generous about it, she wasn’t economically well informed. She seems not to have known about the enormity of the problem of want, on a global scale.
There are almost eight billion people alive on Earth today. The nations of the First World sum to a little more than a billion. If we were to take complete responsibility for the well-being of the other seven billion – placing the improvement of their immediate well-being above all other considerations – we could not even raise them to the level of the average American poor person. Not even by liquidating the entirety of our capital and distributing it uniformly among the peoples of the world – and after that, of course, nothing more would be produced. We would return to the savage conditions of the Neanderthals.
Yes, First Worlders are better off than others. But how much better off? Yes, we have an abundance of food, clothing, shelter, and fuels. The margin we possess beyond what we pay for those things pays for our discretionary activities and our luxuries. But the margin falls well short of what it would take to remove the chains of poverty from all the rest of the world.
I mentioned this to Father Chris. He was rather surprised by it; he’s not a devotee of economics, and I am. We concluded that while a given goal might be highly desirable…we might all agree on it, yearn for it, and work to bring it nearer…that’s far from a guarantee that it’s currently achievable.
This is a part of what the great Thomas Sowell has called “the tragic vision.” He laid it out in stark contrast with what he called the vision of the anointed:
|The Tragic Vision||The Vision Of The Anointed|
|Human capability||Severely and inherently limited for all||Vast…for the anointed|
|Social possibilities||Trade-offs that leave many “unmet needs”||Solutions to problems|
|Freedom||Exemption from the power of others||Ability to achieve goals|
|Justice||Process rules with just characteristics||Equalized chances or results|
|Knowledge||Consists largely of the unarticulated experiences of the many||Consists largely of the articulated intelligence of the more educated few|
|Specialization||Highly desirable||Highly questionable|
|Preferred decision-making mechanism||Systemic processes that convey the experiences and revealed preferences of the many||Deliberate plans that utilize the special talents and more advanced views of the few|
|Kinds of decisions preferred||Incremental||Categorical|
That’s quite an indictment of the “anointed.” It points up the great failing in the thinking of even those among the bien-pensants whose intentions are simon-pure and whose attitude towards others who disagree is merely that we’re misinformed. Not to be too blunt about it, they assume that any desirable outcome they can conceive is achievable…and possibly morally mandatory.
But it is not so. It has never been so. Likely it never will be. Therein lies the tragedy to which Sowell alludes with the phrase “the tragic vision:” Our wants exceed our means and probably always will.
That does not free the Christian from his part of the Christian mission: to love his neighbor as he loves himself. But it does allow that not all the people of the world, with all their miseries – many of which are artificial, often imposed by governments – must be counted among his neighbors.
All the great inroads against human poverty have come from individual innovators, who might have had only their own profit in mind. Yet the “Green Revolution,” the movable-type printing press, the rotating magnetic field, and the process of fractional distillation are responsible for a greater degree of alleviation of human misery than the efforts of all the philanthropists known to history.
The engineer’s mantra is “If it ain’t broke, don’t ‘fix’ it.” Surely we should “fix” what “broken things” we can. But we must also be humble enough to recognize that some “broken things” are beyond our power to fix. Not every saint in the hagiographies was sufficiently economically aware to know that…though we could reasonably expect them to understand human limitations. After all, it’s a tenet of our creed.