Crying Wolf

What is the real scandal in the World Bank?

by Bruce S. Thornton

Private Papers

The departure of Paul Wolfowitz from the World Bank has nothing to do with his alleged misdeeds. How can anyone credit criticism of providing for a mistress from the same Europeans who during the Monica Lewinsky scandal lectured us provincial Americans on our puritanical lack of sexual sophistication? Being shocked at a powerful man using his influence on behalf of his girlfriend is like being shocked at finding gambling at Rick’s.

No, the whole inflated “scandal” is really about tweaking the United States and George Bush. Wolfowitz’s crime was not trying to head off a lawsuit from his disgruntled girlfriend, but rather being implicated in the war in Iraq. No doubt he showed a remarkable lack of political awareness in not anticipating that his enemies would seize any pretext, no matter how specious, to bring him down. But his true offense in the eyes of the Eurocrats and World-Bank clerks was “neoconism,” a new thought crime now added to the conga-line of conservative sins.

The larger issue this whole sorry episode raises, though, is why the United States spends billions of taxpayer dollars on yet another international organization whose true purpose is to thwart American interests. Once again, our clinging to debased Enlightenment assumptions prevents us from seeing the best way to protect and advance the interests of the American people.

Like the U.N., the existence of the World Bank reflects the worship of what French political philosopher Chantal Delsol calls “techno-politics.” This Enlightenment delusion believes that human misery and conflict can be alleviated by rational techniques wielded by elite experts. After all, according to techno-politicians, global problems have their origins in material deprivation or psychological dysfunction created by the material environment. Just let the experts go to work on correcting all those flaws, and solutions will be found to the perennial evils of human existence.

The implications of this belief are troubling. Most obviously, techno-politics is anti-democratic. Rather than trusting the people to know their interests and how to advance them, techno-politics attempts to cut citizens out of the political process so the experts can do their work without the oafish masses getting in the way. Of course, for two centuries we’ve seen the bloody results of this delusion, most obviously in the communist regimes whose “technicians of the soul,” the elite enlightened by Marxist “science,” created mountains of corpses in the pursuit of utopia. As the Roman poet Juvenal asked, “Who will guard the guardians?”

Indeed, the record of various “experts” in solving social problems is none too encouraging — just look at this country’s welfare bureaucracy, which for decades worsened the problems it was supposed to solve and created new ones. In fact, when the topic is human behavior I’d trust my plumber to come up with more common sense than a self-proclaimed “expert.” For example, your average Joe knows that if you give someone a handout, you destroy his self-reliance and willingness to improve his own life. He becomes a passive ward for whom charity becomes an entitlement. Yet for decades the international foreign-aid industry has done just that by throwing billions away in handouts to the Third World rather than helping people learn to help themselves.

Worse, though, are the superstitions about human nature and behavior that inform the thinking of these experts. To them, people are mere material things, shaped and moved by the forces of their social, economic, and political environment, passive reactors whose behavior can be improved by tinkering with that environment as though it were a machine. Yet every page of history proves that people are much more than machines or clever chimps. Humans have at their heart a mystery that defies predictive science: the freedom to choose even what makes them miserable simply because they can choose. It is our quirky unpredictability, our conflicting passions, our contradictory goods, and our willful desire to choose freely that sends all the experts’ schemes to the devil.

Just look at Iraq for all the evidence you need. The bloody disorder there is not a consequence of Bush’s ineptitude or some better plan that wasn’t tried. Ultimately, the mess in Iraq reflects the disordered souls of a critical mass of Iraqis who prefer allegiance to tribal loyalties or a dysfunctional faith to freedom and security.

All the international agencies are founded on these flawed assumptions, and all have pretty much failed at achieving the global peace and order they promise. In fact, these institutions have usually functioned as instruments used by states to pursue their own political and economic interests even as they loudly pay lip service to grand ideals of human rights and peace and prosperity. In other words, old-fashioned flawed human nature has determined the behavior of these institutions, not lofty idealism. As such, these organizations are used by states to thwart the interests of the more powerful, meaning the United States — and the insult added to the injury is that we pay for the privilege.

If we Americans believe that it is in our interests to provide economic aid to other countries, then we can do so without getting ourselves entangled in bloated, wasteful bureaucracies that most of the time work against our national interests without any accountability to the American people who foot the bill. The President should be thinking not about Wolfowitz’s replacement, but rather about getting the United States out of the World Bank.

©2007 Bruce Thornton

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