There was once an exchange in Delhi, between the British High Commissioner, Malcolm MacDonald, and my hero, Nirad Chaudhuri. This was in the late 1950s. The topic was foreign aid.
“Mr. MacDonald, do you think, if you give enough money to the chimpanzees, they will one day come up, shake hands with you, and say, How do you do, Mr. MacDonald?”
“Certainly not,” he replied, “a fair question fairly answered. But may I in my turn ask you a question? Will they remain the same chimpanzees?”
“Certainly not,” Chaudhuri said, “but they will not become humans, they will only make themselves more efficient and cunning chimpanzees with your money, and blackmail you for more.”
Now, one of the reasons Chaudhuri is among my heroes, will stand plainly revealed. It was his use of the term “chimpanzees” to give his argument color. Gentle reader may be assured that through the first years after independence, Indian nationalism had imposed standards of political correctness, not less sanctimonious than the standards in America today. One did not imply that the party of Gandhi and Nehru consisted of chimpanzees.
But more, and to the point: In my days of traveling through what was then called the Third World, I was often struck by the truth of Chaudhuri’s observation. “Free money” from the West achieved, in approximately 100 percent of cases, the precise opposite of its intended effects.
That it abetted official corruption, and discouraged productive effort, could almost go without saying. But neither did it win friends and influence people. Instead, it made the ruling classes more self-consciously resentful of “colonialism” and “imperialism.” And their resentment in turn fuelled their demands for ever more foreign aid – not by beggary, but by right.
The exceptions were interesting. In Taiwan, for instance, and in Germany (which had been reduced to a Third World country in 1945), I found real gratitude, especially for American help. This was not for state aid, or the Marshall Plan, however. It was expressed by old people who could remember receiving food and other gift packages – sent blindly, by actual Americans, many of whom hadn’t even identified themselves.
“For I was hungry, and you gave me to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me to drink; I was a stranger, and you took me in. Naked, and you covered me; sick, and you visited me. I was in prison, and you came to me.”
The quotation is from the Douay-Rheims Bible, but the sentiment was expressed to me several times in other unforgettable ways. And it resonated in me, for I could myself remember, as a child of six, a moment towards Christmas in Lahore, Pakistan. My father was gravely ill, and we were penniless. Some American strangers found out about this, and showered us with money and presents.
Let me dwell on that for a moment. To me, it came down to a big bag of “Smarties,” the size of a pillow through a child’s eyes. All my life, whenever I have heard some ideologue spitting anti-Americanism, the image of that bag has come to mind. And there is no “irony” in it. On several occasions, I became irrationally, almost violently pro-American in response to this smug, hateful, and indeed statist posturing.
It had not been a guilt offering. We had received genuine charity, with no strings attached. It was not from “the United States.” It was from specific expatriate Americans who had done a whip round, and sent everything over with their servants, rather than deliver the packages themselves. Perhaps they knew my mama was proud – that she would rather starve than take handouts. She’d had to cross-examine the servants, to discover the source.
Now, the idea behind foreign aid – and behind the whole welfare state for that matter – began in that passage from Matthew 25, and the many others like it scattered through the “Judeo-Christian” scriptures. There are parallels to be found in other religious traditions.
Our entire political order is founded on good intentions, or where not, in a semblance of them. The slogans upon which bureaucratic statism depends recognizably echo the old saws. The state parades as the Good Samaritan, evolving over time and taxes into a kind of Robin Hood, taking forcibly from “the rich” to give to “the poor.”
And those who resist the state’s claims, are methodically demonized as the hypocrites of Christ’s parable, who passed the injured man by. I have myself often been lectured in this way, by people of higher income who live on my tax money. Or if you will, by the “chimpanzees” of Nirad Chaudhuri’s parable.
To my mind, the distinction between a person and the state is not a subtle one. The first is a moral agent. The second is inhuman, and therefore cannot be. In our day, the specious term “democracy” has been employed to bridge this chasm: to make the most involuntary acts, such as being openly robbed by a faceless irresistible force, into something nominally voluntary.
Among the virtues I attribute to the old, pre-democratic orders, was candor. Power was personal, rather than collective, and the distinction between ruler and ruled was sharp. Not by democracy, but by the long, essentially mediaeval development of – e.g. – British common law, by which the individual was defended against the arbitrary acts of the rulers.
Whereas, “democracy” replaced a much smaller and less effective tyranny with a much larger and more effective one – able to arrogate to itself not only the monopoly on physical force, which all governments aspire to, but also the monopoly on righteousness, which only the insane once asserted.
And what is taken by main force, and distributed by political calculation is, in turn, received without gratitude, as if by right. It brings out the worst, even in the beneficiaries.
Consider: “As long as you did it to one of these my least brethren, you did it to me.”