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Luck and Virtue in America and Haiti

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

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.

How to lift Haitians out of misery is an enduring puzzle. U.S. intervention, undertaken periodically for nearly a century, hasn’t worked. Foreign aid, of which Haiti has gotten billions over the past 20 years, has failed. Left-wing despots haven’t led the way to salvation, and neither have right-wingers.

One of the poorest countries on Earth -- far poorer than even its communist neighbor, Cuba -- most of its people live on less than $2 a day. Two years ago, the Associated Press reported that in the slums, some people were often reduced to an unusual local staple: cookies made of salt, vegetable shortening and … dirt. They sold for a nickel apiece.

Haiti is also one of the worst-governed nations, with laws that are generally ineffectual and most power wielded by a few wealthy families, paramilitary groups, drug lords and other criminals. Barely a country, it is no more governable than, well, an earthquake.

A 2006 report by the National Academy of Public Administration noted, “The international donor community classifies Haiti as a fragile state -- the government cannot or will not deliver core functions to the majority of its people… Others have variously characterized Haiti as a nightmare, predator, collapsed, failed, failing, parasitic, kleptocratic, phantom, virtual or pariah state.” In short, it is a plague that dwarfs the worst natural disaster, even while it magnifies the destructive power of such events.

This bleak condition should not really be blamed on the people who happen to have been born Haitian. They inherited a world they didn’t make and have only minimal capacity to change. That’s their misfortune. We did the same, with far happier results.

As Americans, our virtues are important, particularly in the long run. Haiti could benefit from cultivating them. But before we congratulate ourselves, we should remember that we owe our greatest debt to our immense good luck.

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