Oct 202011

Yue Yue and MotherLast Thursday a little girl was run over on a street in Foshan City in Communist China.  A dozen passersby ignored her writhing moaning body as it lay in a pool of blood.  Another truck came by, slowed down, and then ran over her legs.  Yet more passersby ignored her until a garbage collector came and moved her to the side of the street and looked for her mother.

The images were gruesome and horrifying.  The fact that so many ignored her as just some piece of road-kill has become the topic of controversy around the world.  Why would someone ignore a small child in obvious need of help?  If but one of them stopped to help she wouldn’t have been run over for the second time.  What goes through the minds of people who choose not to get involved when such little effort could have prevented so much suffering?

An article in the National Post on Tuesday enumerated several possible reasons.  The driver of the truck which initially struck the toddler said that,

“If she is dead, I may pay only about 20,000 yuan.  But if she is injured, it may cost me hundreds of thousands (of) yuan.”

Some said that would-be Good Samaritans are usually held liable for damages or wrongly accused of being a perpetrator and do not assist out of fear of being arrested, imprisoned or sued.

Some blamed a lack of morals brought on by the destruction of the family unit, a lack of religion in officially atheist Communist China, a population crisis of too many people in such a small area.

Unmentioned in the article is neither the official one-child policy of the Chinese government nor the extremely high incidences of female child abortion or infanticide in that country.

What is highlighted in the National Post article is a belief that capitalism is to blame for the lack of compassion in Chinese society.

Professor James Miller of Queen’s University in Kingston was quoted as saying that,

“There is a gold-rush mentality – people are clambering over other people to try to make ends meet, to try to get ahead.  With the adoption of capitalism, it is seen as being all about self-interest.”

There is so much wrong in Professor Miller’s statement it is hard to know where to begin.

People are trying to make ends meet all over the world including in this country and yet a child run over by a truck would receive immediate aid here as it would in many parts of the world.

To say that Communist China has adopted capitalism is laughable.  It would be laughable for anyone who knows what capitalism means.  For this I will need to distinguish between a person being a capitalist and the overriding economic term of capitalism.

Throughout history there have been capitalists, in every country, in almost every period of history.  A capitalist is simply an individual who uses his property or capital as a means to create a profit.  A land owner who rents out his land, a money lender who gives a loan to someone and charges interest, a wage earner who has saved enough to invest in somebody else’s venture, a Bed and Breakfast owner who rents out their bedroom for the night, an industrialist who owns a factory employing thousands to produce widgets.  All are capitalists.  They use their property or capital to earn income or profit.

Such people can be distinguished from others who, rather than having or using capital for gain, sell their skills or brawn for a wage: a line-worker at an auto plant, a farm hand, a government bureaucrat, a clerk in an office.

Prior to the mid19th century capitalists were referred to as individualists.  But whether it was in 20th century America or 17th century England the individualists relied on government to protect their individual rights to use their capital to earn money.  For many it was just a livable wage but for the fortunate and adept the rewards amounted to fortunes.

For the workers, this disparagement in wealth was inexplicable.  They did not realize what efforts the capitalists took to gain their initial capital nor could they appreciate the risk the capitalists took when they invested their capital in ventures.  This ignorance, led to envy which has led, in some corners of the world to civil wars.  In the West it may not have led to such bloodthirsty revolutions as in Soviet Russia or Communist China but it has led to envy and hatred.  Emotions fueled by a complete ignorance.

Capitalism is a political system which protects the individual rights of its citizens.  When a person’s right to their life, liberty and property (amongst others) are protected then they can pursue economic activities beyond menial labour.  They can invest, enter into long-term contracts, develop their property and employ people to create wealth.  Without the assurances that their rights are being protected their risks are multiplied.  They may find themselves victims of government bureaucratic whims, police corruption, graft, and bribes.

That is why it comes as no surprise when I hear a well-healed Canadian university professor blame China’s capitalism on the indifference shown to the little toddler run over in the street.

Professor Miller, like so many, has very little understanding of what capitalism means.  Although a scholar of religion and Chinese culture he is ignorant of his own society’s history and culture.  He is not alone.  The thousands who are occupying Wall Street have proven themselves to be utter morons when it comes to understanding the society which has given them so much in terms of wealth and opportunity.

But capitalism is more than just a political or economic system.  An ideal capitalist, or to use the arcane term, an individualist is a person who has come to an understanding about nature and knowledge.  He knows that nature to be commanded must be obeyed.  How else could an auto manufacturer mold the metal from the earth into cars and buses?  He respects knowledge and years to learn as much as possible about his business.  How else it to succeed in a world where there are many others to compete with?

But there is a virtue, held not only by capitalists but by many workers as well, that drives them to perform above and beyond their competitors and their co-workers.  It is a positive sense of life.  A understanding that life is good, whether you make $20,000 a year as a busboy or $20 million a year investing in other people’s companies.  It is this love of life, your own life that drives many of us.  It makes us be the best we can be at whatever we do.

It is this love of one’s own life which is the fountainhead for our ability to feel compassion for others.  Only those who despise their own lives can walk casually by a dying child on a road side.  And only those who love their own life and their own existence, to whatever degree, will stop to help the child because compassion comes out of love of life.

The fact that so many Chinese walked by the little girl is a symptom, not of capitalism but of 62 years of being told by a Communist government that your life is not your own, but belongs to the state.

The 1949 victory of the Communists in China marked the beginning of the end of any love individuals could have for life, their own or anybody else’s.  The fact that only within the last few years that some have been allowed to start and grow businesses under the iron fist of a one-party state has not overturned two entire generations of death at the hands of communist rule.

Capitalism and the necessary government protection of an individual’s right to their life, their liberty and their property are integral in the cultivation of a love of life.  Communist China is years away from achieving such a condition.

We should not only pity the little girl, dying on the street we should also pity those who walked by her as they are also dying.  But their death is just taking a little longer.

(Originally broadcast on Just Right #222, October 20, 2011.)

Update: It was reported on Friday, October 21, 2011 by Guangzhou Military District General Hospital that Yue Yue died of her injuries.

Oct 212010

Samaritan SnareAny talk on poverty such as the one we had on our show last week will inevitably bring up discussion around compassion.  I received a note from Ralf, a loyal listener in Italy, who asked if “giving” is implied in the word compassion.  To this I would say no.

Compassion is an emotion akin to sympathy which arises out of a love of one’s own life.  We feel compassion for others who are suffering because we recognize that life has value and as you love your own life you can put yourself in the other person’s place and feel sympathy (or empathy as the case may be) for that other person.

Compassion may very well be accompanied by a desire to alleviate the suffering of the other person, but we have to ask ourselves if the person who is suffering worthy of our compassion.  Compassion is not unconditional.  We should not have compassion for criminals who are suffering because they are paying the penalty for their crime.  If we feel compassion for the victims of torture we should not feel compassion for the torturer.  To do so would be to negate the compassion we feel towards the victims.

Picture the Hollywood movie where the murderer is hanging from a balcony ledge and the good guy has a hold of him.  In most of those Hollywood pictures the good guy will take pity on the murderer and put his own life at risk by bringing the murderer up from the brink.  This would be an immoral act and rather than a display of compassion it is a demonstration that the so-called “good-guy” does not in fact love his own life.  He puts it at risk by letting the murderer live.  The murderer may try to kill him (as is often the case in these cheesy movies) or he may escape justice only to kill others.

Compassion does not mean that one should sacrifice their lives for the sake of strangers.  Nor does it give the sufferer a blank cheque on the largess of the man with compassion.  Just because someone is suffering does not give that person a right to be helped or the right for others to feel sympathy for him.

Giving is only moral if what you are giving does not constitute a sacrifice on your part.   If a hobo asks for some spare change and you have spare change you could easily part with no real loss to you it is fine to feel compassion for his helplessness and give him your spare change.  If your neighbour’s house catches fire and is left standing on the street with naught but the clothes on his back a person could easily put himself in that person’s shoes, feel compassion for him and help him out by perhaps offering him clothes, food and at least a place to stay until more permanent arrangements could be made.  If such acts constitute a sacrifice on your part then you should not feel obligated nor feel guilty that you cannot offer assistance.

In cases of emergencies such as floods, earthquakes, tornadoes and the like then it would not be immoral to offer aid to the point where normality is once again achieved.  The earthquake in Haiti is a good example.  Normalcy there was poverty at subsistence level.  While we may feel compassion for the Haitian’s before the earthquake taking them out of poverty was not an obligation nor would it be practical considering that their poverty was mostly a condition they brought upon themselves by suffering a corrupt political system.  When the earthquake occurred the situation became a temporary catastrophe.  In such cases giving personal private aid would be ethical as long as it was not a sacrifice to you.  Aid to strangers in emergencies should only be given to alleviate the emergency, to bring the situation back to normal.

Our capacity for compassion is often preyed upon by what I would refer to as professional sufferers.  Those among us who consider their lot in life to be poor and expect and demand that others help them.  These people have no self-respect and have no intention of trying to better their lot on their own.

Worse than these professional sufferers are the people who set up agencies to keep these people in poverty and need.  These are the agencies which turn to government to extract aid by the barrel of a gun.  They rely on people’s natural desire for compassion and use it as a weapon of guilt.

Private agencies who do not appeal to governments for assistance and who fundraise themselves to help others provide a service for those not only in need but for those who want to help and find these agencies a convenient way to do so.  The difficulty lies in trying to determine which agency is a legitimate agency for the poor and which is a parasite on both the government and the poor.

When guilt is used to extract aid from someone that person’s understanding of compassion is under attack and it can be difficult to understand that compassion comes from within and should not be forced from you.  Compassion should be an indicator of the level to which you love your own life.  It can be a motivator for decent acts of kindness.  We should learn to recognize it for these qualities.

(Originally broadcast on Just Right #174, October 21, 2010.)