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Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Saviors Need Victims

And If There Are None on Offer, They Will Conjure Some

One of the many lovely benefits of the mass prosperity made possible by free-market innovationism is that it unleashes the better angels within us — angels that encourage us to turn some, and sometimes much, of our time and individual attentions toward helping others. The mother of children dying of diarrhea or near starvation isn’t much interested in helping strangers. In contrast, the mother of children healthy and well-fed has the luxury of being able to care about strangers.

But this praiseworthy human moral sentiment can, and often does, backfire. Wealthy people by which I mean people healthy, well-fed, well-clothed, well-shod, well-housed, and well-leisured and literate are often deformed by their better angels into saviors. Busybodies. Officious do-gooders. Arrogant meddlers. Tyrants seeking as personal payoff not crass material gain but the perverted satisfaction of lording it over other people for what these tyrants sincerely believe to be the good of these other people.

Saviors need victims who need saving. And if such victims are not real and readily available, the saviors conjure them up by convincing themselves that this or that group of people are helpless victims eager to be raised from the muck of their misfortunes by the saviors. Sometimes the saviors convince even the groups they seek to save that they the members of these groups are indeed mired in a muck from which they can be extracted only by the saviors.

As society grows wealthier, the need to be saved by others from earthly misfortunes grows steadily less frequent and less dire, while the itch to save others from earthly misfortunes grows steadily more frequent and more intense. A great irony is that, insofar as this itch to save grows faster than the need to be saved declines, the genuine need to be saved might actually rise because the actions of those who itch to save more often than not worsen, rather than improve, the well-being of those who are the targets of the saviors’ efforts.

A mathematically inclined theorist should be able to describe, with equations, the outcome of these opposing forces as a dynamic equilibrium an equilibrium that is not necessarily a happy one.

This idea first appeared at Cafe Hayek.

  • Donald J. Boudreaux is a senior fellow with the F.A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, a Mercatus Center Board Member, and a professor of economics and former economics-department chair at George Mason University.