A Matter of Opinion: Righteousness Comes Cheap: Concert is a good party, but the cure for poverty it promotes is off the mark


There is nothing better than combining support for a good cause with a good time. That's the point behind the Live 8 rock concert that takes place this weekend on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

The event, which will be held simultaneously with similar concerts in eight other spots on the globe, is organized by British promoter Sir Bob Geldoff, who gave us – and the city of Philadelphia – the 1985 "Live Aid" concert. But unlike that extravaganza, Live 8's purpose is political, rather than directly philanthropic.

Geldoff, along with some other members of the glitterati, such as U2's Bono and Sir Elton John, wish to attack Third World poverty at what they believe is its root cause: the debts incurred by Third World governments, and the perceived failure of prosperous nations like the United States to give enough in aid to the debtor nations.

Mobilized by Rock

Their prescription – supported by former South African president Nelson Mandela, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan and Annan's advisor, Columbia University's Jeffrey Sachs – is to cancel all Third World debt, and pump in wads of cash to these destitute countries. Both measures would, they believe, be a major step toward the end of poverty around the globe.

Geldoff wants concert-goers to exert pressure on the Bush administration and other heads of state in advance of the annual G8 conference of industrial powers, to be held next month in Scotland.

It's simple: Listen to music, and then make the rich give to the poor. Self-righteousness comes pretty cheap these days, and you'd have to be an incorrigible curmudgeon to say anything bad about it, wouldn't you?

But there's a real problem with this mass-produced activism: It isn't likely to help the Third World poor.

As it so happens, the developed nations, including the wicked Americans, have already donated untold billions for this very purpose. The United Nations, the World Bank and the G-8 countries have all tried their hand at it. And yet, the result hasn't been what they intended.

Instead of ending poverty, the money earmarked for aid to impoverished Africans and expensive development projects has had little effect on the availability of clean water, the control of diseases or even the AIDS pandemic. What aid to Third World nations has instead done is reinforce the power of the small, undemocratic and corrupt elites in those countries, and enrich them while consigning virtually everybody else to despair.

The leaders of these countries gather at the United Nations to cry for help while enjoying the pleasures of New York. Outside of the occasional coup, which puts into power a different group of cutthroats, few checks and balances on them or their spending exists.

But past experience with the aid paradigm seems to have had very little impact on people like Sachs, whose schemes the Geldoff concerts are intended to boost. While Sachs notes past failures in his book The End of Poverty (though not in a Philadelphia Inquirer opinion piece on the subject published last week), his plan for debt relief and targeted aid ignores it completely.

Even worse, Sach's plan is top-down-oriented. Foreign experts and nongovernmental organizations will come in to these countries as they have before and tell the locals what to do.

But as Wall Street Journal reporter Claudia Rosett wrote in a blistering review of Sachs' book, "even if you happen to be the smartest man on Earth and have visited more countries than Santa Claus, you still cannot possess all the information dispersed among the individuals who make up a society or an economy."

She then makes another telling point: "What stymies the people in poor countries, as a rule, is not a lack of aid. It is forms of government, often corrupt and tyrannical, that do not allow people to exercise free choice under fair law."

But these concepts don't seem to interest Geldoff or even Sachs and Annan. What they believe in is the guilt of developed countries for the ills of the poor, whose failings can be variously ascribed to capitalism, colonialism, insufficient foreign aid and military spending – anything, that is, but the absence of the rule of law or free economies.

Since Geldoff's platform is built on fashionable notions, who can blame the millions who will attend and, no doubt, bombard Washington with appeals for support of the Live 8 agenda? The poor won't be helped, but the rest of us will be warmed by memories of a good time.

A Different Model

But there is a model for how a debt-ridden nation can free itself of the bonds of foreign economic control. Interestingly enough, it took place right here in Philly. Some 215 years ago, when the American republic was in its infancy, the United States was weighed down with debt, and newly inaugurated President George Washington was faced with a bankrupt economy.

But rather than follow the advice of followers of Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and allow debts to be repudiated, Washington listened to Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton.

Hamilton believed that America could prosper only by establishing a government that paid its debts, supported its currency and encouraged a free economy for its citizens.

And that's exactly what he did. To the amazement of the world, the credit of the United States was soon good, and the American economic engine was primed to take on Europe. If we live in prosperity today, it's because of the vision of Hamilton, whom biographer Ron Chernow aptly described as "the prophet of the capitalist revolution in America," and not that of the agrarian Jefferson.

Though America faced few of the challenges associated with the Third World today, the linkage between the rule of law, free markets and free economies remains the same.

Ending poverty is an outcome we should all desire. The United States is giving more these days to the Third World, and can probably afford to give more. You would think the 20th-century provided enough examples to show us the utter futility of central economic planning. But in the world of Live 8, maudlin sentimentality trumps history and the laws of economics.

So have a good time at the concert, and feel as good about yourself as you like.

But this Fourth of July, rather than excoriating America, the poor of the world and their sympathizers should look to it for an example of how freedom and prosperity are ultimately indivisible.

Jonathan S. Tobin is reachable via e-mail at [email protected]



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