Monday, July 30, 2007

Faith, failure and good intentions.

Wium Basson was a modern gladiator, a sports hero to his fellow South Africans. At the age of 21 he toured France and England with South Africa’s rugby team, the Springboks. A neck injury ended his career and then the doctors told him that he had liver cancer. He was just 25 years old.

Basson made the decision to travel to Nigeria to a famous faith healer there. Entire tours of people from South Africa, seeking healings, were being organized and Basson joined one of them. A local television crew traveled along to this massive church to chronicle what happened.

I remember four individuals seeking healing. In addition to Wium there was a young boy desperately in need of heart surgery. Another young man had a stuttering problem and a man in his 30s was diagnosed with HIV. They and their families traveled together to seek the help of Prophet. T.B. Joshua.

What haunted me about the film was the look on Basson’s face. Each day he attended the services and each day the Prophet saw this young man in a state of near collapse and he shunned him. He stayed away from him. His case was too desperate, too doomed. All the others he prayed for and proclaimed healed. But he was known to avoid the truly sick.

The stuttering young man testified how he was healed. He dismissed the fact that was still stuttering by saying: “See, it’s getting better.” It wasn’t. The young boy with the heart condition and his father both were convinced he was miraculously healed and were happy to say so. The man with HIV not only claimed he had been healed but instantly turned into a heterosexual as well.

Still there was the haunting look on Basson’s face. His eyes pleaded with the Prophet to come and pray for him. Each time the Prophet pretended the man was not there. Basson had to lie on the bench, he was too weak to sit up. His girl friend held his head and fanned him and wet his brow trying to give him relief. The Prophet looked the other way.

Basson and the “healed” all returned home. The television crew did follow ups on each of them. The young boy with the heart condition had new x-rays which showed the condition was just as bad as before and that he still needed surgery. He was on the waiting list. The stuttering young man stuttered still stuttered weeks later. There was no improvement. And the man with HIV still tested positive and confessed he was still gay. Basson said nothing. A couple of days after he returned home he died. From diagnosis to death was about one month.

Anyone who reads this blog regularly knows that I’m an atheist. But I can assure you that I wanted these healings to be real. I would like to live in a world where a prayer can banish disease. It broke my heart when Basson died.I wanted these individuals to be cured thought I didn’t expect it.

There was no animosity on my part toward any of them. Their plights had touched me. I was on their side. But wanting something badly is not enough. These individuals had the best of intentions. They truly believed that the course they embarked on would result in healing. They were sincerely wrong. Wium Basson had literally bet his life on this.

Many people believe in nostrums, miracle cures or magic formulas. They believe the world can be what they want it to be if they have the right intentions and believe hard enough. I wish that were so.

Politics is much the same way. There are people who believe that the way the world works can be remade. They believe they can formulate the plans that everyone else needs to follow to find happiness.

And far too often they are just as wrong as the people who flew to Nigeria seeking prayers. They may be well intentioned, so were the miracle seekers. They may truly believe that what they suggest will work, just as Mr. Basson believed that what he was doing would help.

We have people sincerely suggesting socialized health care for everyone. It is the miracle cure to the problems we see. And some of us, mainly those who understand something about economics, wave our hands trying to get their attention. We kept trying to explain there are problems in the theory. There are reasons it doesn’t work the way they want it to work.

When we do so we are told that we are cruel, inhumane, greedy, monstrous, evil or immoral. And when they get really upset they have some unpleasant things to say as well!

Had these pilgrims to Nigeria asked me, I would have suggested they stay home and save their money. I would have told them to pursue the options that their physicians gave them. I would have told Wium to love his family, spend time with them, relish every second of the time he had left. I wouldn’t have recommended he travel to Nigeria and wait for hours on end for miracles that wouldn’t come his way.

Would that have been cruel? Would he have been better off with the advice to stay home and surround himself with those he loved? I think he would have been. It is not out of some malicious desire to see him suffer. He suffered far worse in Nigeria.

I am not against socialized health care because I want people to be ill or to die. It’s not because I own stocks in the field -- I wish I did. It is not because I enjoy the misery of others. The suffering of other people disturbs me greatly. I oppose national health care for the same reason I oppose the faith healers. It just doesn’t work.

There is no compassion in false solutions which often make the problems worse.

I opposed the war in Iraq for the same reason. I have no doubt that Bush is just stupid enough to believe that he was remaking the world. He thought he would leave the world a better place. I just don’t think the world works that way. I don’t think most problems in life are amenable to top-down, centrally planned solutions. I believe the evidence shows that the best, most lasting and effective solutions evolve from the bottom and spread through society. They are not planned, they are discovered and then emulated.

That is not to say that every top-down solution fails. A rare few works. Some work for some cases and cause harm in other cases. I think the cumulative results from such things are almost always negative. But the few that do work do not undo the harm of the many that fail. And there is a very high price to pay when you try this approach as the failed systems tend to become permanent. The costs of top-down solutions can be very, very high, in the last century they could be counted in the hundreds of millions of lives lost to utopias.

I don’t believe everyone is benevolent. Some are not. Some people are absolutely evil. By limiting the concentration of coercive power we limit the ability of such evil individuals to inflict great harm. They may still do harm but the harm they can do is greatly reduced. Take the many career failures of George Bush as an example. He worked for various individuals running businesses and none of them were run well. At most he could harm a relatively small number of people. But give him political power and the entire world suffers as a result.

I often feel bad because I know that telling the truth about reality often destroys dreams that people have. But wishing is not enough to make it real. Wium Basson wished he would be healed. He wasn’t.

The odd thing is that I share the dreams and wishes of many of the people I oppose politically. I wouldn’t mind if socialism worked but it won’t. If there were some magic formula for ordering society that would banish all problems I would applaude. But there isn’t. Life is a series of trade offs. There are more optimal and less optimal solutions. There are no panaceas.

Freedom doesn’t guarantee solutions. It just creates the conditions that make them more likely. State control doesn’t guarantee failure, it just creates the conditions that make failure far more likely. And whether you, or I, or anyone else, wished that these other solutions worked the reality is the same. I can’t promise you what miracles will be brought about by freedom. I can only assure you that freedom allows people to flourish and to discover and to innovate. It isn’t utopia. Utopia isn’t an option and anyone who promises utopia will deliver hell. It is just a recognition that the reality of the world is such that free people are more likely to discover real solutions.

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