Steve Chapman

We sit in the shade of trees we did not plant. -- Peter Raible

Most Haitians may have never cut down a tree, but just as we enjoy trees someone else planted, they suffer from the absence of trees their forebears destroyed or didn’t plant. Haiti is a desperately poor place plagued by rampant corruption, bad government and violence, and it always has been.

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Not coincidentally, it also has few trees: Less than 4 percent of the country is forested. That compares with more than a quarter in the Dominican Republic, with which Haiti shares the island of Hispaniola. Deforestation is economically debilitating, depriving the country of a valuable renewable resource. It’s also environmentally harmful, because it fosters soil erosion, flooding and desolation.

I look after the trees in my yard, making sure they get water, checking them periodically for signs of distress and getting them treated as necessary. Such care may be virtuous on my part, but I can’t claim much credit for the trees around my house or my leafy suburban community. They owe their existence mostly to people who came before me.

There is no question that our society is superior to Haiti’s in almost everything that touches on human well-being. Americans need not feel bashful about acknowledging this fact. But we should resist the temptation to assume that because we on average are more productive, disciplined, future-oriented and law-abiding than Haitians, we as individuals are somehow superior to them.

Our society achieves those qualities because it rewards them. If Haitian society did the same, Haitians would develop them as well. Placed in the appalling conditions that afflict most Haitians, we would not necessarily do better than they do, and we might well do worse.

Americans tend to regard themselves as masters of our own destiny, which is partly true and highly useful to believe. We often forget that most of what allows us to succeed was bequeathed by history: a stable, democratic government based on the rule of law; a dynamic economic system rooted in personal freedom and secure property rights; a tradition of self-reliance and individual responsibility; and a faith in our capacity for progress.

We can congratulate ourselves on preserving those assets. But it’s a lot harder to create such valuable commodities than to preserve them. It’s especially hard for people who come into this world with the cruel, overwhelming handicaps borne by the people of Haiti. While our past is a blessing, theirs is a burden.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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