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Doing Bad by Doing Good

The Cato Institute recently hosted an event with Christopher J. Coyne called “Doing Bad by Doing Good: Why Humanitarian Action Fails” to discuss his new book by the same title. Coyne is a professor at George Mason University and the director of the F. A. Hayek Program at the Mercatus Center. Doing Bad By Doing Good Coyne, a critic of government interventionism, says he wrote this book to address this often-heard idea: “Well of course everyone believes the US government has an active role to play internationally to address human suffering.” This mindset is common among millennial Christians. When we see people suffering, we want them to flourish, and our first instinct is for the government to help—both domestically or abroad. However, while our intentions are noble, there are often unintended consequences. As Coyne says, “What’s called ‘humanitarian action,’ or ‘short term relief,’ has become so blended with longer term development and military foreign policy goals that, while categorically we separate those things out, it becomes very difficult to isolate one or just stop at a certain point.” “What I try to do is apply an economic way of thinking to develop a general theory of humanitarianism,” Coyne says, and he defines the problem as follows:

Issues of vulnerability and suffering are ultimately issues of economic development and whether the institutions of that community encourage or discourage productive entrepreneurship.
The solution he then proposes is that aid efforts should be economically driven because “economics focuses on constraints.” This is important because the economic way of thinking focuses on “the constraints we face, not in just in the quantity of resources, but our intelligence, human reason, our ability to allocate resources in a manner that makes people better off.” The current model of aid follows a central planning philosophy—that the “smart” people can get together and determine exactly how much of various goods and services people need and the best way to produce and deliver those goods. This violates what F.A. Hayek defines as the “knowledge problem.” This should matter greatly to Christians. As I’ve blogged before, “In the Garden of Eden, we see that man is created with imperfect knowledge. Even the forbidden fruit did not make man omniscient; instead, it made him knowledgeable of both good and evil. It is fundamental to the Christian faith, just as it is to laissez-faire economics, that knowledge is ‘not given to anyone in its totality.'” Throughout history, when a purely central planning model has been tried, it has resulted in shortages and more suffering. A recent example of this is in Venezuela, where police officer confiscated toilet paper, diapers and juice boxes due to a nationwide shortage. My friend Lee Doren explains this “interesting phenomenon where they run out of toilet paper” quite well by calling the situation, “really, really sad and pathetic.” Treating aid like a government central planning project not only fails to produce enough aid, but it turns the very people we are trying to help into what Coyne calls “voiceless customers.” This approach does not seek to heal the broken relationships which have contributed to the poverty in the first place. Right solutions in humanitarian aid, according to Coyne, will follow our moral judgments but will be informed by economic principles.