The Weak-Willed Do-Gooder
By Bryan Caplan
Imagine Smith sees a problem in the world. He knows how to fix the problem. He’s got the resources to implement this remedy. He sincerely wants to do good. If he decides to fix the problem, is there any reason to worry that he’ll make the problem worse?
Yes. Perhaps Smith, though well-intentioned, lacks follow-through. He routinely hatches big plans, then loses interest or focus half-way through. He is, in a phrase, a weak-willed do-gooder.
What’s so worrisome about weak-willed do-gooders? Simple: For many problem, half-hearted solutions have worse consequences than leaving well enough alone. This is obviously true on a purely selfish level. Investing your life savings in a business, then walking away two months later, is much worse than parking your funds in a checking account.
The same principle often holds for philanthropy. Suppose a poor soul needs a time-sensitive series of surgical procedures. Paying for step one, then skipping town, could easily be fatal for the patient. On a larger scale, imagine giving an impoverished village half the stuff it need to modernize, then suddenly walking away. Your “assistance” might lead them to drop their only source of livelihood before they have a viable alternative.
The most horrific example of weak-willed do-gooding, though, is probably “humanitarian” military intervention. The U.S. invades a country like Iraq, toppling its totalitarian government. If the U.S. were to stay until a free and prosperous society takes root, the war plausibly passes a cost-benefit test. Unconvinced? Compare North and South Korea, then try to tell yourself the Korean War was fruitless.
Nowadays, though, the U.S. rarely packages its liberations with steely resolve. Instead, modern American do-gooders spend a few years setting up a new and improved government, get bored, and walk away. The result: Not freedom and prosperity, but civil war.
What’s the right lesson to draw? Hawks gravitate to the puritanical solution: “The U.S. has to become a strong-willed do-gooder. Overthrow the dictatorship, then stay without hesitation until the job is done.” But this is wishful thinking. Hawks are well-aware that the modern U.S. is weak-willed. Until they figure out how to root out this vice, saying, “We’ll solve our weakness of will after we win the war” is irresponsible. Why? Because given the current state of the American psyche, they should expect the policies they advocate to end badly.
You could protest, “But weakness of will is a notoriously hard vice to eliminate.” That’s precisely my point. If your humanitarian ambitions are going to predictably founder on the rocks of human ADHD, the true humanitarian stops before he starts. Yes, this sounds worse than “Let’s do our best, and see what happens.” But advocating what is better over what sounds better is the beginning of virtue.