Sandall on Dereliction

Friday, September 08, 2006

Roger Sandall of Spiked writes a very interesting essay on the subject of dereliction in which he examines the role of prosperous elites in the decline of their societies. He builds his case from three examples, the first two of which are drawn from the real world (Cameroon and Malawi), and the third from a novel about a clan of the idle rich who descend upon an estate they have purchased in Trinidad only to destroy it through neglect and short-range thinking.

Just for its coverage of the role in destroying Africa of Western aid money and the despotism it props up, the article is worth a read. For example, Sandall notes that in The Undercover Economist, Tim Hartford reports on the fact that Cameroon's kleptocracy "stifles economic initiative at every turn". Thus the ruinous policies of its government not only have gutted Cameroon's physical infrastructure. They have also gutted its moral (my term, not Sandall's) infrastructure.

There's no point investing in a business because the government will not protect you against thieves. (So you might as well become a thief yourself.) There's no point in paying your phone bill because no court can make you pay. (So there's no point being a phone company.) There's no point setting up an import business because the customs officers will be the ones to benefit. (So the customs office is under-funded and looks even harder for bribes.) There's no point getting an education because jobs are not awarded on merit. (And you can't borrow money for school fees because the bank can't collect on the loan.)
Sandall correctly notes that this observation not only supports the idea that legal title to land is crucial for economic progress, it builds upon it. The kleptocracy in Cameroon has indirectly made even intangible investments like education unacceptably risky.

Sandall then goes on to examine a report on the decline of Malawi (parts of which remind me of the decline of my home town) over the past forty years. Particularly noteworthy is this account of a conversation between Dark Star Safari author Paul Theroux and the vice-chancellor of the University of Malawi.
At a dinner given in his honor Theroux meets the vice-chancellor of the University of Malawi and a sometime Malawian ambassador to Germany. The subject of the expulsion of Indian traders and shop-keepers comes up. "The Indians were chased away," says the ex-ambassador. "We wanted Africans to be given a chance to run the shops. So that Africans could go into business. The shops were handed over. I bought one myself!"

With what result? asks Theroux.

Ha-ha! Not much. It didn't work. They all got finished!

The result of this deliberate destruction of Indian commercial activity was that throughout Malawi's rural areas there were soon no shops at all -- "and, twenty-seven years later, still no shops." When Theroux points this out the ex-ambassador turns to ridiculing Indian business acumen as a contemptible numerical obsession. "They sit there, you see, and they have these little pieces of paper, and have these columns of numbers. And one Indian is running the calculator, and another is counting the sacks of flour and the tins of condensed milk. One-two-three. One-two-three."

Theroux comments:

What this educated African in his plummy British voice intended as mockery -- the apparent absurdity of all this counting -- was the description of people doing a simple inventory of goods in a shop.

"We Africans are not raised in this way," the ex-ambassador goes on, nodding to the others for approval. "What do we care about shops and counting? We have a much freer existence. We have no interest in this. Shops are not our strong point." [bold added]
One wonders whether this official would bristle with indignation if Theroux had called him a "noble savage". And yet that is basically how this man thinks of himself, with his contempt for long-range, life-giving activity that he cannot take the trouble to understand. In fact, he shows contempt for the Indians even when he acknowledges (a) they were better at this strange activity than his people and (b) the Indians who did it were able to run shops successfully! This man wants the shops, but not to perform the activity that makes them possible in the first place!

The account goes on to note the complicity of the West in propping up such, shall we say, toxic elites.

What is apparent by this point is that in much of Africa, there is a moral contempt for life-giving activity: simple maintenance, trade, respect for property, etc. and monetary insulation from the full consequences of this attitude provided by the West. In other words, we are seeing a gross extrapolation of America's welfare state.

Interestingly, Sandall goes into the realm of fiction -- but, almost incredibly, not Atlas Shrugged -- for his third example of dereliction. He concludes:
Just as the English chalet-bungalow in Malawi becomes reduced to an African hut, so the French colonial estate is turned into a wilderness of cowsheds, tree-stumps, and latrines. The barbarians have taken over -- but this is not the forgivable barbarism of the oppressed. It is the less forgivable barbarity of a prosperous elite who might be expected to know better, yet show only indifference, habitual indolence, and neglect instead of care. That it applies just as much to the barbarians within the West as to the less fortunate in the world outside should go without saying.
This point is well-taken, but somewhat lacking. His exploration of the novel A House for Mr. Biswas does not entertain the question of how the Tulsi family became rich or whether they remain rich. He does, however, explain that the Trinidadian government is not plundering their wealth.

Sandall is attempting here, as far as I can tell, to explain that the mere possession of the material accoutrements of civilization does not make one civilized. But where he falls just short is that it is precisely the same thing: long range planning and action taken to advance one's own welfare (which he calls "care") that, yes, maintains the material manifestations of civilization, but also creates wealth in the first place. In other words, he is correct that material goods alone do not make one civilized, but he just misses the causal connection between civilized behavior and material success.

In the conclusion of his essay, Sandall writes:
At the end of that unusual and original book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance -- a book that has much to say about care -- an eleven-year-old boy, who has ridden behind on his father's Honda from Minnesota to the Pacific Ocean, asks

"Can I have a motorcycle when I get old enough?"

His father replies: "If you take care of it." They then discuss what taking care of something means, and the boy wonders if he will be able to cope. Is it going to be hard? he asks. "Not if you have the right attitudes his father replies. "It's having the right attitudes that's hard." That goes for civilization too.
Ah! But what attitudes?

This is one of those essays that just screams the question: "Has this man never heard of Ayn Rand?" The whole thing reminds me of nothing more strongly than reading certain passages of Atlas Shrugged and I long for something like Francisco d'Anconia's "Meaning of Money" speech at some point, but it never happens.

Perhaps he has not, and because Sandall, proponent of Western culture as he is, is a mixed bag, as Western culture is, with its mostly incompatible Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian strands. We have, on the one hand, inherited the great gifts of science and rational thought from the ancient philosophers that make our astounding material success possible. But on the other hand, we are, mainly from our religious tradition, also saddled with the moral code of altruism, which teaches contempt for material success and redistribution of wealth -- the very ills that are destroying Africa -- as virtues. And so Sandall does not make that final connection -- between a desire to want the fruits of Western civilization for oneself and the continuation of Western civilization.

Perhaps that is why Sandall never discussed moral rot even though it goes hand in hand with material rot.

Does Sandall see the goal of preserving Western civilization as "greater than himself", as some sort of altruistic cause? If so, he has made a grave error, for the cause of Western civilization is the cause for our own survival and nothing less than a forthright acknowledgement of that fact is going to save it -- or us.

-- CAV

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