Almost from the outset, I realized my error. Once again my idealism had gotten the best of me, even if to me it had all seemed so clear and pressing. The eight or nine officials from the U.S. Agency for International Development who were seated around that conference table at USAID headquarters more than three years ago just before the Christmas break were all committed to the introduction of the political economy analysis (PEA) tool into USAID’s core set of analytical approaches. Yet my pitch (or was it a plea?) went flat. In that obscure meeting long ago, I was making the case that limiting our evaluation of what constitutes good, effective, and sustainable international development requires more than just the analysis and consideration of power and money, and more than just viewing democracy and governance as a competitive “political game”. People are complicated creatures, and sometimes we are motivated by other reasons…moral reasons. Sometimes people choose to collaborate instead of compete, or chose to care about others rather than use them.
Their facial expressions said it all. Some showed a glint of pity for my naïveté, others were more openly disdainful. How did I ever get to be a political appointee and senior advisor without appreciating what they each knew to be irrefutable and fundamental doctrine, that Homo economicus rules? My curious assertion was that many (I believe I said “most”) people in developing countries are also deeply moved in their aspirations, choices, character, and actions by a moral compass. I argued that while PEA was undoubtedly a useful tool for USAID, it could not be applied without at least some room at the edges for the influence of morality and ethics – but it was evident that my modest challenge to orthodoxy would be resisted.
Homo economicus is well described by Peter Ubel as a “creature of coldly calculated selfishness, dispassionately maximizing its best interests even if that comes at the expense of others”. And the irony isn’t lost on me that I’m writing about Homo economicus very, very early on a dark and quiet Christmas morning. My thoughts at this moment are also simultaneously drawn to that compelling historically unexpected alternative paradigm that was introduced to the world more than two millennia ago in the humility of a birth in a stable in Bethlehem.
I used to find Christmas in America nearly unbearable. The word “crass” doesn’t begin to capture the avaricious, manipulative, cynical view of humanity that has converted a celebration of one of human history’s most poignant examples of love, sacrifice, caring, and wisdom into an orgy at which Homo economicus presides and exalts. Fortunately I have moved on and now have found my own ways to ignore the crassness. I have learned how to center down on Christmas. And while I am a Christian, I would think that the story of Jesus that had its start in that manger is one that transcends any religion, with his life and message of love, humility, peace, and caring offering a profound challenge to the earthly rule of Homo economicus.
Homo economicus has no use for love or peace, except as sentiments to be exploited for commercial gain. The articles of faith of the doctrine of Power and Money haven’t built their vast financial empires or victorious armies on the virtues of caring, gentleness, or humility. There’s no trace of love in the arrogant smirks or in the manipulative, condescending words of the most successful (i.e. wealthy and powerful) exemplars of power and money. Homo economicus is all too real, and USAID is right – we ought to take him (and occasionally her) seriously. He is regularly embodied now and throughout history in a never ceasing cavalcade of “successful” people who are distinguished by (or loathed for) their limitless greed, self-centeredness, cruelty, bluster, arrogance, and disdain for lesser mortals. Donald Trump is but the latest variation along this theme, yet like Mobutu Sese Seko, Robert Mugabe, Pol Pot, Adolph Hitler, or innumerable other tycoons or despots, somehow this type of person always attracts a devoted following.
Why do we make disproportionate room in our lives for power and money, but seem to relegate love to the edges? Why do we build our media and news around stories of extreme violence, sensational greed, and the callous lives of the unthinking, uncaring wealthy elites and self-absorbed celebrities, with very little room for genuine “good news” stories? Why do we get so exercised about those who prosper through avarice and corruption, while entirely forgetting to recognize those who quietly but steadfastly pursue lives of remarkable integrity? Why do we honor experience (with no moral denominator) and ignore wisdom? Why do we say so little about (and fund so minimally) such extraordinarily successful examples of peacebuilding such as the Peace Corps, yet complain endlessly about government dysfunction? Why do we think of human rights only as a list of grievous violations, instead of as an agenda that – if actively promoted – leads inexorably to the universal recognition of human dignity? Why do we fail to recognize the hard and selfless work of human rights activists and civil society folk around the world, who make extraordinary sacrifices in their quest for making our world just a little better? Continue reading Peace on Earth, Good Will toward Men (and Women)