9/14/2007

Out of Africa

I came back from Africa just in time for the new school term. To my pleasant surprise, we have returned uneaten by the wildlife, and (apparently) uninfected by any of the various diseases that the guidebooks said were rampant in sub-Saharan Africa.

I had hoped that spending over a month working in (first) rural schools and (second) refugee camps, that I would have some sort of insight or revelation about circumstances in the developing world, or the proper relationship affluent Western people and countries should have with developing areas. Or some epiphany about globalization etc. No such luck. I met many people who were very smart, very kind and generous, and very funny. I worked on some very small projects with some of these folks. I miss them now. But no deep enlightenment about the difficult conditions of the majority of the world's inhabitants.

I also didn't have any real thoughts about philosophical stuff; just one little note that I might try to incorporate into an intro to political philosophy class. So one issue that comes up in political philosophy 101 in the debate between Hobbes and Locke is whether it is worse to live in the state of nature, or under a dictator. Hobbes says the former is worse, Locke the latter. I always thought this was an important question in the dialectic between the two, but answering it seemed difficult to impossible -- how could you really decide?

Well, during the 50 hours or so I spent riding travel buses in Zambia, I read a great book by Martin Meredith, called The State of Africa: A History of 50 Years of Independence. It was perfect for an ignoramus like me: not too much detail, but still plenty of concrete material. And the history of the last several decades in Africa makes Locke's answer to the above question look prima facie pretty good. The large majority of the strongmen were absolutely brutal to citizens, and not just people who "got on the dictator's bad side" -- you could be from the wrong tribe; you could have starvation-inducing taxes levied upon you; as we see in Zimbabwe today, your currency could be massively devalued to the point of worthlessness. If you have a problem, then you are killed -- horrifically -- along with your friends and family. In the state of nature, you at least have a chance of overpowering your neighbor; but imagine if, in a Hobbesian state of nature, God gave one person the power of throwing deadly lightning bolts at will... that's what a strongman's presence is like. And as e.g. Mobutu's power in the DRC waned, and his paramilitary power dwindled, you no longer have a capricious and wrathful Zeus hanging over your head. (Though then another strongman, Kabila, fills the void, backed by neighboring countries, and horrors continue.)

I say this is prima facie evidence, because I think a Hobbesian could conceivably retort that as the strongman's ability to throw thunderbolts decreases, some other social entity steps in to take his place, so that the people are not in the state of nature. But this is all just my amateurish speculation; I am certainly not an expert in early modern British political philosophy.