TCS Daily

Simple Goodness

By Lee Harris - January 31, 2003 12:00 AM

One of the most tragic victims of liberal ideology has been liberal idealism, by which I mean the impulse to make the world a better place. For nowadays the question that most preoccupies liberals is not so much whether good is being done, but whether it is being done the right way, or-even worse-whether it is being done by the right party. For the goal is no longer one of trying to improve the lot of the average human being by any means practicable, but rather the implementation of a social policy that is in accordance with the conventional dogmas of modern liberalism.

This policy of the tried-and-untrue, as it might be called, is nowhere more apparent than in the tricky matter of helping the Third World. Here the liberal party line is that the way to help the Third World is to curb both American power and American wealth, as if by making us less well off we could automatically improve the standard of living of those less fortunate. But this is nonsense, though of late it has become a kind of canonical nonsense through the agency of the Kyoto Treaty. If the whole of the United States were to disappear tomorrow in a catastrophic earthquake like a second Atlantis, it would not materially benefit a single suffering man, woman, or child anywhere on our planet.

Behind the liberal dogma of how to improve the world lies a fallacy, and it is a fallacy that should be discernible to anyone who has ever been around other humans long enough to observe them: it is the fallacy that doing good for another simply means doing what the other person wants you to do. But this is true neither for individuals, nor for nations. For sometimes what people want is the worst thing that they could possibly get.

Yet there is no dogma without its grain of truth, and in this case the grain of truth lies in the liberal's resistance to what is known as paternalism. For if we are not willing to help other human beings the way they want us to help them, then what other standard can we appeal to other than the standard of what we think is best for them? But, in this case, how are we to know for sure that we are really helping them at all?

But there is a way out of this dilemma, and it was President Bush who charted it for us the night of the State of the Union address.

And the secret is the secret of simple goodness.

Simple goodness means doing what needs to be done in the order that comes first; and this can often result in advice so matter of fact that it appears to coincide with mere common sense, as in Pombal's famous instructions to the King of Portugal after the disastrous Lisbon earthquake of 1755: "Bury the dead, and feed the living."

Bush's proclamation of an American policy to fight AIDS in Africa has all the hallmarks of such policy of simple goodness. It is supported by no ideology and promotes no political agenda. Its whole point is merely to keep people from dying who do not have to die.

But there is only one way that this goal can be achieved on the extraordinary scale that President Bush has in mind, and that is if the United States of America continues to be rich, powerful, and superbly organized. For only a nation with these attributes could possibly succeed in undertaking such a project.

It was not ideals that drove the abomination of the slave trade from the high seas-it was the overwhelming supremacy of the British navy, and this was predicated on the existence of a Great Britain that was rich, powerful, and superbly organized.

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