"This is the first generation in all of recorded history that can do something about the scourge of poverty. We have the means to do it. We can banish hunger from the face of the Earth." — Hubert Humphrey, 1965
WASHINGTON — When Hubert Humphrey said this almost 40 years ago, concern about the wretched of the Earth was the almost exclusive preserve of American liberalism. Barry Goldwater sure did not talk that way.
It was a Democratic Party that was behind the establishment of the United Nations with its various humanitarian agencies (such as UNICEF and the High Commissioner for Refugees). It was the Democratic Party that pushed for foreign aid, starting of course with the Marshall Plan. It was John Kennedy who created the Peace Corps.
And it was in liberal households that little baby boomers were exposed to their first guilt-inducing non sequitur: "Finish your cereal. There are people starving in India." Which was not just a way to get you to clean your plate, but a reminder — while you were enjoying yourself! — of a social obligation to strangers out there.
That same spirit carried over a generation later when, upon arriving at her post as ambassador to the U.N., Madeleine Albright pledged "to terminate the abominable injustices and conditions that still plague civilization."
How times have changed.
Turns out, Humphrey was wrong. At the time, we really did not "have the means to do it" because we did not yet know how to banish poverty and hunger. Today we do.
The answer is not foreign aid, which is corrupting and often worse than useless. In many cases, it actually further impoverished an already poor country. Enriched urban elites bought luxury goods, while donated food and socialist controls drove down the local price of food, ruining the farmers on whom these subsistence economies had depended.
We now know that the secret to curing hunger and poverty is capitalism and free trade. We have seen that demonstrated irrefutably in East Asia, which has experienced the greatest alleviation of poverty in the history of man. In half a century, places like Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea have gone from subsistence to First World status. And now free markets and free trade are lifting tens of millions of people out of poverty in India and China.
And what has been the Democratic reaction to the prospect of fulfilling Humphrey's (and their party's) great dream? Fear and loathing. Democrats today thunder against the scourge of "outsourcing" — American firms giving (what would otherwise be American) jobs to Indians and Chinese and other menacing foreigners.
The anti-outsourcing vogue is part of a larger assault on free trade, which until recently — meaning the Clinton administration — Democrats had supported. Remember Al Gore's televised debate with Ross Perot, in which Gore demolished Perot's anti-free-trade arguments? Which makes the recent Democratic assault on free trade so jarring, never more so than when John Edwards and John Kerry competed with each other before Super Tuesday to see who was against more trade agreements with more Third World countries.
Edwards boasted about his opposition to trade agreements with the Caribbean, Chile and Africa. Who would have thought we would hear a Democrat attacking his opponent for supporting a measure that would help millions of Africans to emerge from poverty?
Unions are a powerful Democratic constituency, and Democrats are genuinely trying to protect workers from foreign competition. But whatever the merits of the argument, the effect is startling: a radical reversal of the older liberal vision of America as helpmate for the poor and suffering of the world.
Interestingly, the Democrats have enough residue of this old vision that they cannot admit to having betrayed it. They pretend they are engaged in altruism. They say what they really want is for trade agreements to grant foreign workers the same labor and environmental standards that American workers enjoy. Why, this is super-altruism — workers' rights carried far beyond our borders to the workers of the world.
Unfortunately, the ruse is transparent. Everyone understands that imposing U.S. standards on Mexican or Chinese factories is a way to make them noncompetitive. They lose their one comparative advantage: radically lower costs. The factories will shut down. And their workers, rather than being helped, will be sent back to the rural destitution they had fled in hope of a better future.
You can say, too bad. You can say, Americans count for more. What you cannot deny, however, is that the Democrats have given up the mantle of tribune of the world's poor — precisely at a time when we have finally figured out how really to rescue them.
Charles Krauthammer's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.