Monday, May 28, 2012

The Real Value of the Peace Corps

I always find the Peace Corps to be an interesting idea. Started by JFK, the idea was that young Americans could go overseas and volunteer in poor countries to help in various development projects, and receive some small payment from the US government.

A number of my good friends did the program, and found it enormously beneficial (OKH did , for sure, and I hope he doesn’t take too much exception to this post). They made a lot of friends, got to see fascinating countries overseas, help out somewhat in these places, and meet the locals.

Don’t get me wrong, these are all great things. But the marginal value of the Peace Corps over, say, studying abroad, or just going backpacking for two years, is harder to tell. Along the aforementioned dimensions, the benefits seem similar, even if the Peace Corps has different advantages.

But the Peace Corps does have one particular benefit that I don’t think staying in a youth hostel can provide.
Based on my rough understanding, the Peace Corps tends to attract smart, idealistic young college graduates eager to do good in the world. This is an entirely admirable thing – a lot of them have come from liberal arts backgrounds that emphasise the injustice in the third world, and they’re eager to do their small part to rectify this.

You’ll note from my previous post that I think, sadly, that this is a Sysephean task that’s likely to result in disappointment and wasted effort.

On the other hand, convincing the average Peace Corps volunteer of this fact seems likely to be an almost equally thankless task. Do you think that after 4 years of relentless lefty agitprop from college professors the average peace corps volunteer is likely to be reasoned out of their convictions, either by my poor scribblings or those of others more eloquent than I? Hardly.

Some lessons just need to be learned firsthand. You can witness personally the sheer level of corruption and inefficiency that characterizes the governments of these benighted places. In some places, you’ll also see the hostility towards capitalism and tribalist attitudes towards wealth (“If my cousin runs a successful business, I deserve a share in the profits despite having contributed nothing”) that help to mire the place even further in permanent poverty. You can also see the general inefficiency of western charity and aid projects, whose implementation is sadly often little better than local governments, despite the loftiest of sentiments and goals.

I don’t want to come across as a total cynic here – many of the people you’ll meet are also lovely, and they have a cheerfulness and joy in their lives that the west sometimes lacks. Read some of Theodore Dalrymple's writings (who is surely no bleeding heart) comparing poor people in the third world with poor people in Britain’s public housing projects, and you realize that you’d much rather be surrounded by the former than the latter. In my own meager travels, I had more friendly strangers introduce themselves to me in India than I ever have in Australia. Some were trying to rip me off. Others just wanted to talk. Human nature is a complicated thing.

But my guess is that either way, two years in the third world is sufficient to convince most Peace Corps volunteers that their efforts to fix the world’s problems are destined to be largely fruitless.

This is useful, because such people tend to be smart and motivated folks, and they’ll do a lot more good for the world by working a regular job in America. Once you’re realized that you can’t change the world, it’s okay to go to law school.

Winston Churchill once remarked that any man who was under 30 and was not a liberal had no heart, while any man who was over 30 and was not a conservative had no brains.

The Peace Corps probably speeds this process up by about 5 years, and with a higher rate of success than the ‘they’ll just figure it out eventually’ school of thought.

And that is immensely valuable, even though it’s a heck of a long way from the intended aim of the whole thing.

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