Acton Institute Powerblog

Helping the “Bottom Billion”

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Richard John Neuhaus is calling it “one of the most important books on world poverty in a very long time.” It’s Paul Collier’s The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries Are Failing and What Can Be Done About It. Neuhaus’s discussion is thorough so I won’t reiterate. Suffice it to say that I’m intrigued by the book’s arguments. I’ve always thought the question of when to intervene militarily—self-evidently one of the key foreign policy questions—is also one of the thorniest moral questions. The way one answers it often has ramifications, for good or for bad, for the world’s most vulnerable people. It seems obvious that a strictly libertarian approach (“never intervene”) is callous, not to mention geopolitically foolish, while a vigorously interventionist policy is dangerous in many ways as well as unsustainable in the longterm. In between the two, how does one formulate consistent criteria of intervention, rather than make decisions in an ad hoc fashion, a method too easily affected by the passions of the time, special interests, and so on? I’ve yet to see a satisfying answer.

Kevin Schmiesing Kevin Schmiesing, Ph.D., is a research fellow for the research department at the Acton Institute. He is a frequent writer on Catholic social thought and economics, is the author of American Catholic Intellectuals, 1895-1955 (Edwin Mellen Press, 2002) and is most recently the author of Within the Market Strife: American Catholic Economic Thought from Rerum Novarum to Vatican II (Lexington Books, 2004). Dr. Schmiesing holds a Ph.D. in American history from the University of Pennsylvania, and a B.A. in history from Franciscan University ofSteubenville. Author of Within the Market Strife and American Catholic Intellectuals, 1895—1955 (2002), he serves as Book Review Editor for the Journal of Markets & Morality. He is also executive director of


  • I’m currently working about the best way to handle things in my head as well.

    Although I lean toward the purely libertarian approach of “non-aggression”. I’m curious as to what you see as geopolitically foolish about it.

  • Kevin

    Good question, Matt. By “callous” I mean to refer to the possibility of humanitarian intervention. By “geopolitically foolish” I mean to refer to the possibility of military action in the interest of national defense, but not in the immediate defense of one’s own territory (i.e., the bad guys aren’t on American soil). A strict non-intervention policy would have prevented any American involvement in the European theater in World War II, for example.

    Even if one doesn’t accept that intervention in WWII was justified (ala Pat Buchanan), consider a starker theoretical case: a totalitarian, expansionist state led by a maniacal dictator, attacks Canada (Canada-haters, insert joke here). Following the non-intervention policy, the US would not be able to assist in the defense of Canada. That, it seems to me, is foolish, even judging purely by a realpolitik consideration of American self-interest.

  • A strictly libertarian answer ought to be callous, and focused on self-interest.
    The question is why anyone ought to care about the plight of anyone else at all? The Objectivist in me says the ought not.
    But the believer says I ought, in response to the call of Christ.

    Therefore: Nations do not have a mandate to rescue innocents from under tyranny. Christians do.

    My recommendation is rescue, importation, and integration of innocents into our own lives.

    The parable of the good Samaritan is our guide. We invite the least of these into our lives and make the personal sacrifice necessary to rescue them.

    Often, such action will require the backing of force. In these instances Just War theory allows us to apply force only up until the aggressor is halted. Then we give the innocent the option of coming home with us.

    As for foreign policy, trade is the answer, not military action. Militias, and assassination policies will prevent invasion, as they did for Switzerland in WWII.

  • Jeff

    I think we are conflating the issue. Can’t we view gov’t intervention from a libertarian view but from a personal view I can be highly involved. I can organize mission trips, fundraisers, and the such to help the poor and still have a non-interventionist view of what gov’t involvement should be. That seems to me to be the best approach.