Michael Gerson's Moral Clarity

Let me state up front that I’m not a Fred Thompson supporter (I don’t officially support any candidate), but Michael Gerson’s attack on him in the Post today is both misleading and indicative of pretty much everything that’s wrong with Gerson-style politics.

Gerson’s beef is with Thompson’s debate answer expressing skepticism about foreign aid for AIDS in Africa. Here’s what he says:

His objection, it seems, is not to government spending on public health but to spending on foreigners. But this is badly shortsighted. America is engaged in a high-stakes ideological struggle in Africa, where radicals and terrorists seek to fill the vacuum of failed and hopeless societies. Fighting disease and promoting development are important foreign policy tools in this struggle, which Thompson apparently does not appreciate or even understand.

Thompson’s argument reflects an anti-government extremism, which I am sure his defenders would call a belief in limited government. In this case, Thompson is limiting government to a half-full thimble. Its duties apparently do not extend to the treatment of sick people in extreme poverty, which should be “the role of us as individuals and as Christians.” One wonders, in his view, if responding to the 2004 tsunami should also have been a private responsibility. Religious groups are essential to fighting AIDS, but they cannot act on a sufficient scale.

Thompson also dives headfirst into the shallow pool of his own theological knowledge. In his interpretation, Jesus seems to be a libertarian activist who taught that compassion is an exclusively private virtue. This ignores centuries of reflection on the words of the Bible that have led to a nearly universal Christian conviction that government has obligations to help the weak and pursue social justice. Religious social reformers fought to end child labor and improve public health. It is hard to imagine they would have used the teachings of Christ to justify cutting off lifesaving drugs for tens of thousands of African children — an argument both novel and obscene.

The first thing that bothers me about this is the way he deploys religion not simply to argue for but to scold anyone who doesn’t subscribe to his favorite policies. Now, not surprisingly, I tend to think that there’s a strong case to be made (some other time) that Christians should essentially behave as libertarians, and I’m not alone in thinking this. Gerson, however, seems unaware of this — despite several decades of (admittedly not always consistent) Christian conservative advocacy for limited-government — calling the notion “novel and obscene.”

However, I’m also not dogmatic enough about these ideas to think that there’s no valid opposing view, and I’m certainly not willing to say that anything in the Bible specifically prescribes any particular government policy (or lack thereof). Gerson, on the other hand, is remarkably arrogant in his invocation of religious duty and remarkably simplistic in his conflation of charity and state action. He seems not to recognize the existence of any legitimate debate over what Christian teachings require of individuals and societies, and worse, he seems to believe that Christians have somehow been explicitly ordered to support federally-funded foreign AIDS prevention programs. It’s as if he believes that public aid to Africa is a clear Biblical doctrine (hopefully there’s also an appendix with a table showing how many billions the government ought to give).

Anyone reading this should also go look at David Frum’s NR review of Gerson’s book in the Dec. 3 issue, which says this:

Let’s revert to that anecdote about the 2002 Oval Office meeting on HIV/AIDS. As Gerson reports, many administration officials strenuously opposed the program the president was considering. The Office of Management and Budget protested that the program would cost too much. The Centers for Disease Control worried that the program seemed “half-baked.” Staffers at the National Security Council warned that direct foreign aid to local health-care programs had, in the past, often been stolen or wasted. In the face of all these objections, the president posed a stark question: “Will this work?”

At this moment, the story goes, Gerson spoke up. “If we can do this and we don’t, it will be a source of shame.” The president chimed in: “That’s Gerson being Gerson!” And the program proceeded.

So, okay: Did it work?

Curiously enough, Gerson seems very little interested in the answer to that question. He tells a moving story about visiting AIDS treatment centers in Africa. But that emotional response does not substitute for analysis. In the nearly five years since the program went into effect, it has been intensely studied by experts inside government and out. It is generally agreed that the program has done some good in treating Africans infected with HIV/AIDS: Of the 25 million or so infected Africans, about 1 million are now receiving drug treatments paid for by the U.S. Treasury. At the same time, many knowledgeable people contend that the program’s prevention dollars are largely wasted.

What’s the final verdict? The experts disagree, and I am not expert enough to judge who is right. I do know, however, that my above paragraph, written on the basis of a single afternoon’s reading and telephoning, contains more hard information on the program’s results than you will find in all 300-plus pages of Heroic Conservatism.

There’s plenty of reason to believe that the aid often doesn’t work. In Uganda, for example, it seems that foreign aid serves largely to enable a corrupt regime. Reports indicate that even countries like Kenya, which until recently seemed relatively stable, government health departments are “riddled with graft.” Foreign governments give about $5.7 billion a year to for AIDS prevention in sub-Saharan Africa, and yet the rate of infection is still growing. Here’s what Richard Posner says:

I am dubious that the foreign donations are money well spent, compared to alternatives. This is not because HIV-AIDS isn’t a ghastly disease, and economically very harmful because of its debilitating effect on the working-age population, to which most of the victims belong; it is because the causes of its prevalence in those countries in which it is prevalent are social and economic conditions, or political decisions, that must be changed before there can be any real hope of significantly reducing the prevalence of the diseases, and that are unlikely to be changed by foreign money. The causes include profound ignorance about the disease (due in part to superstition and in any event an aspect of much broader deficiencies in education and literacy), miserable living conditions and short life expectancy which reduce aversion to risky behavior, migrant male labor that increases the demand for paid sex, cultural traditions of male promiscuity, female circumcision (a risk factor for HIV), and the extremely low status of women that drives many of them into prostitution and reduces their ability to bargain effectively with men over safe sex, to which men are more averse than women. Underlying all these things is the extreme poverty of most sub-Saharan countries, which in turn stems, in major part anyway. from the dreadful legal and political infrastructure of most of these nations. …

Because of the inadequate legal and political infrastructure in sub-Saharan countries, giving money to these countries for any purpose is likely to be a poor investment. This is dramatically shown by the case of South Africa, which has one of the highest rates of HIV-AIDS of any country in the world. Because of its mineral resources and its substantial white minority, South Africa is by African standards a wealthy country. Its GDP is almost $200 billion. Its leaders have been in a shocking state of denial concerning AIDS. Any money given to South Africa to fight AIDS is likely simply to replace the money that South Africans spend on AIDS.

And as Frum notes, even if there’s a case to be made for the efficacy of the programs, Gerson simply doesn’t seem to care. He’s hung up on promoting a grand moral symbolism, but never stops to question whether any of what he proposes will actually produce the intended result. Even more troubling, from my perspective, is that he’s so blinkered by his religious certainty that he essentially confuses his policy ideas with holy writ. He’s unable to accept any view of politics that does not share his moral clarity, and he desperately hopes to find purpose in using government as a tool for social betterment. But government policy isn’t theology, and, no matter how eloquently Gerson says otherwise, it doesn’t give life meaning either — and no amount of moral haranguing or wishful thinking on his part will make it so.