Humanitarian with a guillotine (Korea Times, February 1, 2013) by Casey Lartigue, Jr.

Former U.S. President Ronald Reagan said the nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ``I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.” For many well-intentioned activists, politicians, and intellectuals, that should be updated as: ``We are here to help you. You’re under arrest.”

For example, ``sex workers” around the world oppose anti-prostitution laws. Prostitutes may not know the theoretical arguments but they do know in reality that prohibiting prostitution means they lack protection in dealing with abusive pimps and madams, violent patrons and crooked cops.

Locally, a Korean woman busted for prostitution recently appealed to the courts pleading, ``I cannot survive without this job. I don’t want to be treated as a criminal for making a living the only way I can.”

How should someone who genuinely wants to help her respond? If you say ``arrest her” then you are qualified to be a “harmful humanitarian.” In your desire to help, you have eliminated what she considers to be her best option at the moment.

I certainly support rescuing people forced into prostitution who want to escape, but sex workers not seeking to be rescued should be left alone or offered viable options, not arrested.

The humanitarian with a guillotine, to borrow a phrase from Isabel Paterson, doesn’t stop there. Many kind-hearted people decry ``sweatshops,” even though people line up to work for ``slave-labor” companies that pay more than other available options. Sweatshops aren’t ideal, but they are better than no shops. There are real world consequences when humanitarians block options for people with limited choices.

In 1993, U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin proposed banning imports from countries that employed children in sweatshops. In 2001, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman wrote, ``The direct result was that Bangladeshi textile factories stopped employing children. But did the children go back to school? Did they return to happy homes? Not according to Oxfam, which found that the displaced child workers ended up in even worse jobs, or on the streets ― and that a significant number were forced into prostitution.”

Despite their good intentions, humanitarians like Harkin are like arsonists returning to the scene of their crime. Unlike arsonists admiring their destruction, harmful humanitarians are shocked to see the road to hell paved with their good intentions. So many patiently discuss how things ``ought to be” ― as if they were in Michael Sandel’s justice class at Harvard University discussing how to rearrange society like pieces on a chess board.

Humanitarians are at their worst when their well-intentioned policies prevent people from saving themselves. According to the Korean Network for Organ Sharing, about 22,000 people in Korea are waiting for donated organs. Annually, about 900 die while waiting for transplants. The Ministry of Health and Welfare successfully discovered 754 illicit deals in 2011, meaning that even more people would have died.

Do humanitarians want more moralizing about organs or more organs available? Using government power to thwart market transactions between willing buyers and sellers means that many people die annually needlessly or prematurely while organs that could save them are buried or cremated.

Doctors take the `Hippocratic Oath, typically summarized by the Latin phrase “primum non nocere” or ``first do no harm.” Given the existing problem, ``it may be better not to do something, or even to do nothing, than to risk causing more harm than good.”

Activists, politicians and intellectuals need a similar oath vowing to offer alternatives rather arresting the people they say they want to help.

Casey Lartigue, Jr. is a visiting scholar at the Liberty Society in Seoul. He can be reached at cjl@post.harvard.edu
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