Rock star Bono of the group U2 has been saying some very interesting things lately. Let’s concede up front that it’s all too easy to celebrate someone for coming around to your way of thinking. Merit badges for genius are easily awarded to people who agree with you.
I won’t belittle this particular celebrity by lavishing him with insincere praise for saying something that agrees with my philosophy. But I will say that he always struck me as sincere in his concerns about Third World poverty and health crises – not just sincere in the easy “I really, really care” sense, but willing to invest considerable time and energy in studying the situation. A lot of people, particularly high-profile entertainers looking for moral depth, profess to “care” about things they don’t understand at all.
Here’s Forbes describing the evolution of Bono’s thinking about the long war against African poverty:
Bono has learned much about music over more than three decades with U2. But alongside that has been a lifelong lesson in campaigning — the activist for poverty reduction in Africa spoke frankly on Friday about how his views about philanthropy had now stretched to include an appreciation for capitalism.
The Irish singer and co-founder of ONE, a campaigning group that fights poverty and disease in Africa, said it had been “a humbling thing for me” to realize the importance of capitalism and entrepreneurialism in philanthropy, particularly as someone who “got into this as a righteous anger activist with all the cliches.”
“Job creators and innovators are just the key, and aid is just a bridge,” he told an audience of 200 leading technology entrepreneurs and investors at the F.ounders tech conference in Dublin. “We see it as startup money, investment in new countries. A humbling thing was to learn the role of commerce.”
BIZPAC Review relates similar comments from Bono’s speech to Georgetown University, including his wry observation that “sometimes I hear myself and I just can’t believe it.”
“Aid is just a stop-gap. Commerce [and] entrepreneurial capitalism takes more people out of poverty than aid.
“In dealing with poverty here and around the world, welfare and foreign aid are a Band-Aid. Free enterprise is a cure.
“Entrepreneurship is the most sure way of development.”
These are provocative statements, coming from someone who found dismal results from pouring good money into a bad system. If Bono happens to be reading this, he should be advised that such pro-capitalist sentiments would get him classified as a dangerous right-wing extremist under the current American political rules of engagement. Our ruling class is firmly convinced that only central planning and regulatory control can engineer prosperity, or provide for the poor. It’s considered an insult to tell poor people they should value entrepreneurial opportunity over food stamps. Politicians see themselves as the cure for free enterprise. Innovation is severely frowned upon, pending review by a vast horde of bureaucrats. Failed commercial ventures with the right political connections are subsidized without end; successful businessmen without the right political connections are branded Enemies of the People.
It is wise to be humble before the power of capitalism and entrepreneurialism, for they are the practical expressions of almighty freedom. If you’re not free to make your own investments, control your own property, and voluntarily sell your labor, you’re not “free” in the most vital and lasting sense. Most of the other freedoms you’re supposed to cherish end up being distractions from the more potent liberties you are losing. And you’ll notice those other freedoms have a way of slowly and quietly dissolving, once economic liberty is gone, because those who would seize them have little to fear from an indentured populace.
Of course commerce takes more people out of poverty than aid. That’s true in the First World, Third World, and any other worlds you can visit without dying first. Aid, as Bono noted, tends to be temporary. Commerce is an enduring system. It helps labor and material resources find ideal investments. Voluntary transactions increase the value on both sides, which is more than any disciple of command economics can say about his redistributive schemes. One of the great things about voluntary commerce is that it learns from its mistakes, recoiling from the pain of bad investments. It doesn’t sustain illusions as long as politics can. Nothing does, really.
As the passengers on an airplane are told to secure their oxygen masks before helping others in an emergency, so the charity of a prosperous society is more valuable, and more enduring, than welfare-state promises. Capitalism also nourishes human dignity, finding the value in every hour of every man and woman’s day. Provisions are made for temporary setbacks, but no one is classified as useless for a lifetime.
A system of government that values capitalism and commerce is the only form of government that remains truly vigilant against theft. Every other form of government finds ways to legitimize theft. Once the right to own property becomes negotiable, the negotiations never cease.
The rule of law is essential to development. Only a fool invests extraordinary effort in any endeavor, when he knows the profits will be taken away from him. No one builds anything to last when they know they can’t pass it along to their chosen heirs. Long-term planning is impossible when rules change at the whim of politicians. Confidence in government evaporates when the State itself is lawless. It’s silly to rail against “corruption” when everything a gigantic government does is corrupted by political connections and ideological considerations.
People know what they need, what they want, and what they’re capable of. They deserve respect for those decisions… and they greatly benefit from encouragement to do a little more, want a little more, reach a bit higher, aspire, build, dream. Enforced effort is servitude, and the quality of the results is poor. Mandatory limits on aspiration lead to weakness and frustration. Dreams designed by the elite insult the intelligence of those they wish to rule. Most of our organized sins against our fellow man are inspired and driven by some species of arrogance. Squeeze out every drop of arrogance – from sneering elite disdain to paranoid self-pity – and what remains is humility, and capitalism. Everyone who makes that challenging moral and intellectual journey deserves a round of applause. It’s a nice bonus if they can sing, too.