All Commentary
Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Savoring “Three Cups of Tea”: An Essay on the Future of Politics

Voluntarism, Not Interventionism, Is the Way to Make the World a Better Place

How can we make the world a better place? Truly this has been the $64,000 question of the modern age, and politicians and ideologists have bloodied the twentieth century clamoring against each other to offer the world their answer. Yet strangely, these disputing politicians and ideologists have all shared a basic premise. They have assumed that government is the agency that should be used to save the world.

This faith in government is deeply puzzling. Governments have started absurd and terrible wars. Governments have slaughtered scores of millions of their own peoples. In domestic affairs—regulation of the savings-and-loan industry, mortgage lending, hurricane disaster relief, agriculture, college loans, public housing, medical care, to name a few—government has stumbled into embarrassing mega-scandals. One would think that this record of catastrophe and bungling should have made people hesitant to look to government for solutions.

Another thing that should make people skeptical about government is its unseemly modus operandi. Government is not a high-minded institution that approaches the world in a spirit of gentle persuasion and self-sacrifice. Its officials don’t lead by setting an inspiring example. Government relies on laws and on taxation, tools that are based on force, on threats to throw you in jail, or seize your property, or kill you. One would have supposed that idealists, who look askance at the use of force in other contexts, should have turned their backs on this crude approach.

Yet, for the most part, they haven’t. Generation after weary generation, well-meaning social reformers have taken their petitions to government, convinced, as the world in general is convinced, that government is the agency we must use to make the world a better place. When, one wonders, will this fixation fade?

Well, perhaps it is today starting to fade—in the quiet, unnoticed way a great cultural change begins. The straw in the wind is the warm reception given by book clubs and college campuses to an unusual book, Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace. . . One School at a Time. It recounts how mountain climber Greg Mortenson became a social reformer. Returning from a failed effort to scale the peak K2, Mortenson lost his way and was taken in by Pakistani villagers, who nursed him back to health. One day he saw the children of the village trying to learn school lessons, sitting on a patch of open ground, with no teacher, no books, and writing by scratching with sticks in the dirt. It tore his heart. Mortenson promised the villagers to come back and build a school for them. To make coauthor David Relin’s gracefully written long story short, Mortenson eventually did return, built the school, and founded a charity that has gone on to build some 60 more.

This bestseller is recommended reading at schools across the country, including Montana State, South Dakota State, the University of North Carolina, Carroll College, San Diego State, and Vanderbilt. “It’s just an inspiring story,” said Greg Young, Montana State’s vice provost for undergraduate education. “The implied message is our students could serve the world, change the world, using this as an example.”

The Voluntary Way

What Young didn’t add, because provosts aren’t permitted to contradict the Zeitgeist so directly, is that Mortenson’s example squarely contradicts the assumption that government is the way to change the world. Mortenson built his schools through his own dedication, and by inspiring others to donate funds voluntarily. That he succeeded with a ridiculously tiny budget (his first school cost $12,000) throws into relief the failings of governments with their jillions of tax dollars. In Pakistan, the villages had no schools because the government had failed to live up to its promise to provide them. In Afghanistan, where Mortenson also built schools, the U.S. government makes promises, but the money vanishes into bureaucratic rat holes.

Mortenson’s experience goes beyond demonstrating that voluntarism is more efficient than government. He shows that it is the humane and sensitive method as well. Because he can’t force people to do anything, Mortenson relies on persuasion and his own example of sacrifice and commitment. He meets with locals, listens to their opinions and advice, and tries to learn from them, a personal approach vital in these days of global misunderstanding and tension. The U.S. government, operating in the sweeping, arrogant way governments act, has provoked suspicion and hostility in Muslim communities around the world. Mortenson, following the sensitive, voluntary approach, builds bridges of genuine understanding between cultures.

For example, a local cleric issued a fatwa against Mortenson, arguing that it was un-Islamic to educate girls, as Mortenson was proposing to do. To counter him, Mortenson didn’t get on his high horse and rant. He asked for guidance from his local mentors. They advised him to let friendly clerics submit the issue to the Supreme Council of Ayatollahs in Qom, Iran. Agents of the Council visited the schools and interviewed locals about Mortenson’s morals and character. Eventually, the Council issued its judgment: “Our Holy Koran tells us all children should receive education, including our daughters and sisters. Your [Mortenson's] noble work follows the highest principles of Islam, to tend to the poor and the sick. . . . We direct all clerics in Pakistan not to interfere with your noble intentions. You have our permission, blessings, and prayers.”

Remember, this high praise came from fundamentalist Iranian clerics, a group not disposed to view Americans kindly. Can one imagine a U.S. government agency working so delicately and thus inspiring genuine trust and cross-cultural good will? Episodes like this go far in persuading the reader that Mortenson’s sincere voluntary action is promoting tolerance in a way government never could.

More than a century ago, the bestseller sweeping campuses and book clubs was Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, a utopian novella that had the federal government in charge of every aspect of economic production and distribution. This management would be so flawless, said Bellamy, that “No man any more has any care for the morrow, either for himself or his children, for the nation guarantees the nurture, education, and comfortable maintenance of every citizen from the cradle to the grave.” Don’t laugh: this book postulating a wise, selfless, unbiased, efficient, prompt, and honest federal government sold millions of copies, and “Bellamy Clubs” were formed all across the country to bring this vision, called “nationalism,” into reality.

Perhaps Mortenson’s book will today inspire youngsters to consider a different “ism,” voluntarism, as the way to make the world a better place. On one level, Mortenson is far ahead of Bellamy. Bellamy’s book was fiction, and his image of government as a wonderful problem-solver was not based on the actual performance of any government. Mortenson’s picture of voluntarism’s glowing success comes from a step-by-step demonstration in the real world.