I'm reading Kenzaburo Oe's "Hiroshima Notes" and in one of his passages he talks about how the post-war government of Japan offered very little support for the victims of the nuclear bombs. It did not even have an official policy on A-bomb victims until nearly nine years after the bombing. (I don't know but suspect that this may have had something to do with the Allied Occupation's ban on publicly discussing matters related to the nuclear bombs, which lasted until 1951.) He writes:
"The leading role in A-bomb medical care, however, was not taken by the national government; quite the opposite, it was started with virtually no initial resources through the energy and efforts of the unbowing, persevering local people who had to contend with reluctant national authorities every step of the way."
The initial funding for Hiroshima's A-bomb Hospital did not come from the national government, and indeed was not funded by tax revenue at all, but came from proceeds from the New Year's postal lottery.
Oe describes the director of the A-bomb Hospital, Dr. Shigeto - himself a victim of the bomb - who has devoted his entire life to helping the victims of the nuclear attack, and to analyzing its after-effects, "...even to the extent of peddling his bicycle among the ruins to collect fragments of irradiated tiles" for analysis.
Reading about Dr. Shigeto - or about all of the private groups and individuals that helped take care of Jewish refugees in the then-international city of Shanghai when no governments around the world would allow them in - something occurs to me about what I'll call the "liberal mentality." By "liberal" I mean liberal as that word is widely used today: Believing in both the morality and the capacity of the state to "do good." To feed the poor, protect the vulnerable, etc. etc.
Most of the libertarian response to this mindset focuses on the immorality and lack of capacity on the part of the state in doing these things. We talk ourselves blue in the face explaining and showing why governemnt efforts to "do good" almost always end up making the situation worse. But thinking about Dr. Shigeto makes me realize that there's also something just wrong, in a much deeper sense, about this whole outlook.
The response of the people of Hiroshima to what had been done to them, in the face of official apathy, is just one example of human beings doing what human beings do: They come up with solutions to the problems they face, using whatever resources they have. The "liberal" response to this is "yes, but they would have done a much better job with more resources from the national government!" And of course the libertarian response would be "Yes that's true... but those resources would have to be taken from someone else, and from other noble purposes. How do you know this is the best, or most deserving, allocation of those resources? And who are you to declare how those resources should be used in the first place?"
But the liberal is saying something else too (in addition to "more money will fix everything"), whether it's articulated or not: "We can't just trust people to figure things out each time something goes wrong. We need a system to handle this. We need systems in place to take care of people under every conceivable circumstance because left to themselves, people just won't be able to do it on their own."
Despite mountains of evidence to the contrary, mountains of examples where people DO do it on their own and mountains of examples where government "help" just makes things worse, this belief persists. And underneath it, I think, there is a deeper belief about what we are capable of, how we operate, and the nature of life itself. It is rooted in a deep discomfort with uncertainty, a discomfort with the prospect that we don't know the answer to every problem that might arise in the future. I am familiar with this discomfort. I'm sure everyone is. No-one likes uncertainty. But part of learning to live effectively in the world is accepting that it is filled with uncertainty. And I think, part of learning to live with others is trusting that they (and we) are capable of living in this uncertainty, of adapting to changing circumstances.
To believe that the state can remove uncertainty from our lives is to skip happily down the yellow brick road expecting the Wizard of Oz to fix the things in our lives that really, only we can fix. But more than that, to cling to the belief that we humans are so deeply flawed, so perpetually helpless, as to need systems imposed upon us from every angle is to deny our very humanity - a great part of which is our ability to think and adapt and come up with solutions to new situations - and to deny the nature of life itself, which is ever-changing. It is almost as if those who think this way wish to replace human beings with systems and procedures. It is the opposite of "humanitarian."