Sympathy Deformed

Monday, August 9th, 2010

To sympathize with those who are less fortunate is honorable and decent, Theodore Dalrymple says, but every virtue can become deformed by excess, insincerity, or loose thinking into an opposing vice:

I first started thinking about poverty when I worked as a doctor during the early eighties in the Gilbert Islands, a group of low coral atolls in an immensity of the Central Pacific. Much of the population still lived outside the money economy, and the per-capita GDP was therefore extremely low. It did not seem to me, however, that the people were very poor. Their traditional way of life afforded them what anthropologists call a generous subsistence; their coconuts, fish, and taros gave them an adequate—and, in some respects, elegant—living. They lived in an almost invariant climate, with the temperature rarely departing more than a few degrees from 85. Their problems were illness and boredom, which left them avid for new possibilities when they came into contact with the outside world.

Life in the islands taught me a lively disrespect for per-capita GDP as an accurate measure of poverty. I read recently in a prominent liberal newspaper that “the majority of Nigerians live on less than $1 a day.” This statement is clearly designed less to convey an economic truth than to provoke sympathy, evoke guilt, and drum up support for foreign aid in the West, where an income of less than $1 a day would not keep body and soul together for long; whereas it is frequently said that one of Nigeria’s problems is the rapid increase in its population.

As it happens, an island next door (in Pacific terms) to the Gilbert Islands was home to an experiment in the sudden, unearned attainment of wealth. Nauru, a speck in the ocean just ten miles around, for a time became the richest place on earth. The source of its sudden riches was phosphate rock. Australia had long administered the island, and the British Phosphate Commission had mined the phosphate on behalf of Australia, Britain, and New Zealand; but when Nauru became independent in 1968, the 4,000 or so Nauruans gained control of the phosphate, which made them wealthy. The money came as a gift. Most Nauruans made no contribution to the extraction of the rock, beyond selling their land. The expertise, the management, the labor, and the transportation arrived from outside. Within just a few years, the Nauruans went from active subsistence to being rentiers.

The outcome was instructive. The Nauruans became bored and listless. One of their chief joys became eating to excess. On average, they consumed 7,000 calories per day, mainly rice and canned beef, and they drank Fanta and Château d’Yquem by the caseload. They became the fattest people on earth, and, genetically predisposed already to the illness, 50 percent of them became diabetic. It was my experience of Nauru that first suggested to me the possibility that abruptly distributing wealth has psychological effects as well as economic ones.

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