Sunday, July 23, 2017

How Bono Learned That Capitalism Is the Ultimate Antipoverty Program

Stuart K. Hayashi

The text of much of this post is adapted from previous posts of mine, “Symbolater Syndrome, Pt. 2 of 4” and “Choosing America.”

Bono; image courtesy of Pixabay.

Ayn Rand once said, “If capitalism had never existed, any honest humanitarian should have been struggling to invent it.” Many people who think of themselves as do-gooders tend to groan upon hearing statements such as that one. In 1994, the U2 front man Bono would have been among the groaners; he is among them no longer. His change in attitude is worthy of examination.

When he first started his campaigns to fight poverty, the musician put all his emphasis on the most conventional measures, such as calling for increased foreign aid and trying to pressure the World Bank to forgive debt to developing countries so that they could obtain even more loans.  His impression of free enterprise was not very flattering. Over fourteen years ago Bono told People magazine with some ambivalence, “We are taught not to court success here” in Ireland. “There’s an old story about an American and an Irishman looking up at a mansion. The American looks at it and says, ‘One day I’m going to live in that place.’ The Irishman looks at it and says, ‘One day I’m going to get the bastard who lives in that place.’”

But after years of his campaigning, Bono observed that to place most of his emphasis on taxpayer-funded aid was not a winning strategy. Because he did intend to fight poverty, he was therefore willing to adjust his methodology. He attended conferences where he listened to speeches by such free-market theorists as George B. N. Ayittey, who is known for being critical of taxpayer-funded foreign aid. Bono told Ayittey that while he appreciated much of Ayittey’s speech, he remained doubtful of Ayittey’s conclusion that taxpayer-funded foreign aid is harmful on a net balance. Ayittey thus gave Bono a copy of his own book, Africa Unchained: The Blueprint for Development.

Bono eventually observed that political-economic liberalization — what he explicitly called “capitalism” — is the most effective antipoverty measure. By 2012 he explained to Georgetown University students that “commerce is real. . . . Commerce — entrepreneurial capitalism — takes more people out of poverty than aid. Of course we know that. We need Africa to become an economic powerhouse. It’s not just in their interest; it’s in ours.”

The dramatic nature of that change in opinion was not lost on Bono; he chuckled and said, “ ‘Rock star preaches capitalism.’ Wow! Sometimes I hear myself and I just can’t believe it!” In that very same speech he was also more explicitly positive about the United States:

...America is an idea, isn’t it? I mean, Ireland’s a great country, but it’s not an idea. Great Britain’s a great country, but it’s not an idea. That’s how we see you around the world[:] as one of the greatest ideas in human history, right up there with the Renaissance... right up there with crop rotation… the Beatles’ White Album... ...that idea, the America idea, it’s an idea, the idea is that you and me are created equal...

The idea that life is not meant to be endured, but enjoyed. The idea that if we have dignity, if we have justice, then leave it to us, we can do the rest. ... 
This country was the first to claw its way out of darkness and put that on paper. And God love you for it, because these aren’t just American ideas anymore. ... You’ve brought them into the world. . . . I know Americans say they have a bit of the world in them, and you do. The family tree has a lot of branches. But the thing is… the world has a bit of America in it, too. These truths — your truths — they are self-evident in us.

More recently, Bono imparted to Rolling Stone that he now makes it a priority “to understand commerce — I think that’s very important. If you told me twenty years ago that commerce took more people out of poverty than aid and development, I’d have scoffed.” He is not scoffing anymore.

True, he has not given up entirely on recommending taxpayer-funded foreign aid or debt forgiveness, but his willingness to shift emphasis and recommend more liberalization is what evinces that his stated intention to try to fight poverty was genuine. If you asked Bono his opinion on Ayn Rand, he would probably still disapprove of her. But in his words and actions, he implicitly admits that the quotation from her at the opening of this blog post is correct. Indeed, in the part of the speech where he says “life is not meant to be endured but enjoyed,” Bono sounds very much like John Galt saying that your grand goal is “not to suffer and die, but to enjoy yourself and live.” The social system in which you have the freedom to do so is capitalism.

On July 25, 2017, I added the infographics with the chart evincing that capitalism has improved living standards.