Not Saussure

June 1, 2007

I’m from the government and I feel a moral duty to intervene to make the world a better place….

Filed under: Politics — notsaussure @ 9:26 pm

Via Matt at An Insomniac (to whom I am very grateful for sparing me the irritation of having to read the Guardian more often than is necessary) a profoundly confused CiF article by Julian Baggini in support of Tony Blair’s views on intervention; it starts with the puzzling observation that

The Blair paradigm is of the Samaritan crossing over to the other side

and continues downhill rapidly from then on. I mean, that could be taken as quite a good, though cruel, joke about Mr Blair’s good intentions and confused religiosity, in the spirit of Tony Hancock’s impassioned plea,

Does Magna Carta mean nothing to you? Did she die in vain? Brave Hungarian peasant girl who forced King John to sign the pledge at Runnymede

but since Mr Baggini seems to be sticking up for Mr Blair, I think we have to put this down to ignorance, pure and simple. Similarly, I fear we must take juxtaposition of the second half of his observation,

opponents prefer to talk of the road to hell, paved with good intentions – that’s if they can allow themselves to accept that his intentions are indeed honourable.

with the link in the right-hand column of that page, to an article called We had the very best of intentions, as an unfortunate — though grimly amusing — coincidence.

‘What,’ asks Mr Baggini,

what is this dangerous, arrogant doctrine which Blair is promoting? In his own words, it is the belief in “the power of political action to make the world better and the moral obligation to use it.” Pre-Iraq, you would have been hard-pressed to find anyone left of centre who didn’t think that was not just uncontroversial, but a founding principle of progressive internationalism.

Strangely enough, Mr Baggini seems to think this is some sort of recommendation; to my mind, long before Iraq, most people — left, right and centre — viewed political action taken to make the world better in the name of ‘progressive internationalism’ as something rather suspicious, at least when it was undertaken by states. There’s the problem, you see; I’m perfectly prepared to believe that many people in the Politburo genuinely did think they were acting out of a spirit of progressive internationalism when they intervened, in 1956, to stop reactionaries disrupting their Hungarian comrades’ attempts to make the world a better place and when, 12 years later, they responded to their Czech and Slovak comrades’ pleas to

lend support and assistance with all means at your disposal

I’m not being ironic (that’s Clio’s job); I’m sure the reaction of many of the locals left the chaps in Moscow genuinely wondering,

Why should anyone feel angry about us?

Then, of course, when, in the cause of ‘progressive internationalism,’ their successors deployed the 40th Army in Afghanistan, coming out with transparently spurious arguments about uprooting feudalism and preserving secularism and progress from bandits and religious fanatics, we — or at least most Western governments — saw through them and knew on which side to intervene and whom to train and arm. Oh, didn’t we just? That girl Clio has a really nasty sense of humour at times.

My point, which I fear I labour, is that making ‘the world better’ is a rather more complex trick than might first appear, at least when it’s undertaken by governments. Agreeing on what constitutes ‘a better world ‘ would be a start, and that’s before we start to worry about how to achieve it. Indeed, if we contemplate the mixed — to say the least — results we tend to see (‘we’ being citizens of any country, not just the UK) when our own governments attempt to make the country they actually run ‘a better place,’ and the not-always-unjustified scepticism with which we regard their promises so to do (not to mention the sense of impending disaster one usually experiences when politicians start talking about the ‘moral obligation’ they feel to do something), it’s a bit surprising anyone would think they’ll do a better job trying to improve things in a country several thousand miles away.

I’m all in favour of making things better when you can, of course; it’s just that I think it’s a job best done as and when you can. Big place, the world. I mean, it would undoubtedly make the world a considerably better place, at least for the people directly involved, if the government were to declare an amnesty for the illegal economic migrants and failed asylum seekers already in the UK. That, we know, would make life better for them, and considerably more certainly than would some grandiose scheme to ‘intervene’ in their home countries, which strikes me as a pretty uncertain proposition. I don’t hear the government proposing that, though, because it would be highly contentious. Far easier, as a rule, and far less trouble to spend other people’s money on grandiose gestures.

Mr Baggini concedes, at one point,

The only sensible basis for a case against intervention is that it is ineffective or counter-productive. Well, sometimes it is, but to say we have a duty to intervene does not mean we should always do so, without any regard for the consequences.

Sometimes, indeed. But the bit he fails to consider there is who is doing the intervening. In his peroration, he tells us,

If you are really opposed to interventionism, then at least be consistent. Cancel your direct debit to Oxfam, because that too is the rich world “meddling” with Africa. Boycott fairtrade coffee, which imposes “our” ethical standards and social programmes on producers. Tell Bill Gates to stop lavishing his millions on tackling HIV/Aids in Africa and leave it to the continent’s own people to take care of themselves.

Hang on, though; what, I ask myself, have these three examples of ‘intervention’ common? Why, none of them are anything much to do with governments. Fairtrade coffee — for all Mr Baggini’s sneering about

market fundamentalists, who believe that the only way to improve the world is through the invisible hand working through free trade

— is a pretty good example of free trade in action, to my mind; there’s a market in the west for ‘free trade’ coffee and some producers are benefiting from it. It’s not governments who’re behind it; it’s customers and producers entering into a voluntary relationship. It’s Bill Gates handing out his own millions, without having to give a moment’s thought, if he doesn’t want to, about some people’s enthusiasm for promoting abstinence rather than the use condoms. I’ve got nothing against, I hasten to add, people using their own money to fight HIV/Aids in Africa by promoting abstinence, if that’s what they think is the best use for their money, and can find local groups with whom to work, but I’m not sure that I necessarily want my taxes thus used, and I certainly wouldn’t want my MP wasting his time arguing about it in Parliament.

The point, I think, to return where we started, or one of the points, at least, about the Good Samaritan is that, rather than passing on the other side of the road and then, when he got home, started agitating for political action to make the world a better place by doing something about the bandits on the road between Jerusalem and Jericho — give ’em Asbos, that’ll learn them — he actually did something of his own volition to give a hand to just one poor bugger where he could. Far more practical, to my mind.



  1. Baginni’s articles are often among the most interesting on CiF, if only he’d stick to more philosophical matters.

    By-the-way, have you read Chris Dillow’s new book? It really makes the case – indirectly – against grand schemes such as Iraq-style humanitarian intervention. I thought that your argument here really chimed with his thinking.

    Comment by Matt M — June 2, 2007 @ 12:33 pm

  2. I’ve not yet read Chris’ book, I’m afraid, though it’s on my list. It doesn’t surprise me that you see a similarity in the line of argument, though, since both he and I like Michael Oakeshott a lot, albeit possibly for rather different reasons.

    Comment by notsaussure — June 2, 2007 @ 9:59 pm

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