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Screw the Prime Directive!

The other day I wrote a post about the plight of the Bushmen living in the Kalahari desert in Bostwana.

Jaded Voluntaryist commented,

Survival International are a bunch of arseholes who would see brown skinned human beings being prevented from rising out of the mud because it’s just so quaint. I wouldn’t take their word for it. Of course that may not be what’s happening here, but they don’t have a great track record.

They moaned for example when the Saint family (at the cost of several lives) brought Christianity to the Huorani tribe in Ecuador, which helped reduce their murder rate down from somewhere in the 70% region. Hardly anyone lived to old age. No one would deny that not everything the Huorani got from contact with the developed world was good, but only a sociopath would want them to keep living as they were.

I replied,

I take your point about the patronising attitude of groups like Survival International, although I have also heard that they sometimes do good work on the ground protecting tribal people from state and other violence. As I am sure you agree, if any particular Bushman wants to carry on as his or her ancestors did, good luck to them, and if he or she wants to head to the relatively bright lights of Gabarone and seek their future there, good luck again.

However it looks very strongly as if the Botswanan government has taken away the option for Bushmen to live in their traditional way by the use of a mixture of force (eviction from their ancestral hunting grounds and the hunting ban) and state “help” (the infantilising effects of welfare as pointed out by Mr Kakelebone).

I may write a post someday about the superiority of the attitude of Christian missionaries towards tribal people compared to the attitude of groups like Survival International towards tribal people. My argument would not be based on the fact that I am a Christian, nor on any general assessment of how much or little I admire the hunter-gatherer lifestyle (which might vary widely between different groups). My argument would be that the missionaries wish to persuade some other human beings to believe as they themselves believe, whereas the “protectors” wish to keep them as living museum exhibits. They always remind me of those science fiction stories in which Earth is kept ignorant / keeps other planets ignorant of faster than light travel and so on. My sympathies are nearly always with those who say, “Screw the Prime Directive”.

Then I said,

Come to think of it, screw the “I might write a post someday”. I will cut and paste the above comment as a post right this minute.

25 comments to Screw the Prime Directive!

  • Paul Marks

    I do not like the Bushmen being robbed of their tribal hunting grounds.

    But I do agree that the “Prime Directive” is absurd.

    Trying to convince people to stop murdering each other is a good thing (not a bad thing).

    And offering people the CHOICE of high technology is a good thing (not a bad thing).

    “Captain Picard” who (in some episodes – there is no consistency) would rather see whole populations wiped out than risk their being “contaminated” by contact with outsiders – is wrong headed (profoundly so).

    But then none of the Californian (really modern university) view of things presented in “Star Trek” makes any sense – Perry is right about it.

  • llamas

    ” . . . the missionaries wish to persuade some other human beings to believe as they themselves believe, whereas the “protectors” wish to keep them as living museum exhibits.”

    I think it’s worse than that. I think that far too many of the ‘protectors’ want to force other human beings to live as they believe they ‘ought’ to live. Probably because persuasion typically is not effective in the hands of these types of people. If it even occurred to the government of Botswana to try and persuade the Bushmen of the Kalahari to change their way of life, they probably rejected the idea out of hand. Too much chance that they might not be persuaded, or it might take too long, and anyway, we already know what’s best for them. Far easier to just go straight to force.



  • Jerry

    Llamas, if I may continue with your point –
    People who think they know what is best for everyone else tend to gravitate to positions/jobs of power where they can ‘prove’ their beliefs.
    Unfortunately, many of those positions are in some level of government.
    The result is government entities who are going to ‘help you in spite of yourself because they KNOW what is best for you.
    As stated, persuasion is too dicey to depend upon.
    /s on
    Force is much better because, obviously, those being forced are simply to ignorant / stupid / etc to help themselves out of their plight and how the benevolent, kind ‘government’ is going to solve ALL of their problems !!
    /s off
    History is rife with examples, all of them abysmal failures.
    God save us from do-gooders !

  • Jaded Voluntaryist

    I’ve been an avowed Trekkie for years, but I went right off it after watching an episode of Enterprise where they decide the dominant sentient species on a planet is holding back the evolution of the subordinate. Their solution was refuse to help the dominant species cure an easily treatable disease, in the hope that their eradication would allow the subordinate race to experience an evolutionary explosion. Mother knows best sociopathy presented as morality, rather like a lot of what we see concerning tribal societies today.

    And yes, as far as I can tell what is happening to the Bushmen sucks. A good free market solution would be for someone to purchase a suitable piece of land for them to live on, in exchange for letting ethno-tourists observe them from a respectful distance. Botswana sounds like an out of control kleptocracy.

  • Mr Ed

    JV is not that trekkie example simply neutrality? To do nothing there is to let nature take its course. It is not, of course, a ‘Swiss’ style neutrality, as it is a policy adopted with a view to an end rather than for its own sake, but it is (and I hear echoes of Rothbard) surely the right of any party not to intervene (leaving aside any mission or duy imposed on the crew). The desired outcome being what it is does not of itself alter the morality of neutrality.

  • Jaded Voluntaryist

    In the episode in question ed, they had already offered help, and successfully developed a cure before changing their mind. They even had a touching speech about how allowing the deaths of millions was the “ethical” choice in that situation.

    But yes, certainly no-one should be forced to render aid, but equally I reserve the right to assert that someone who has the immediate ability to help another and yet does nothing is a complete bastard. If they do so out of some perceived moral superiority, doubly so.

  • Alex

    The episode of Star Trek referenced by JV (ENT S1E13 ‘Dear Doctor’) is a particularly good example of the nearly-always suspect and very often utterly wrong-headed ‘morality’ found in Trek. Reading the Kalahari post yesterday I also thought of the ‘prime directive’. Couldn’t agree more with this post – screw the prime directive!

  • Mr Ed

    JV, it sounds like the sort of sanctimonious, murderous priggishness that a government employee would find deeply satisfying. If their duty was to assist, then in English Common Law, it would be misconduct in public office, a remarkably frequently prosecuted offence these days it seems, for now anyway.

  • Fred the Fourth

    This is why Trek TOS was better. Pretty much every episode involved a violation of the Prime Directive. In that sense it was a lot like Asimov’s robot stories, where the plots mostly revolved around conflicts between the “Three Laws of Robotics” and the real world, with the laws generally losing out.

  • C. S. Lewis said something very apposite:

    “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience… “

    We can choose to assign people and organizations to the ‘robber baron’ and ‘doing for our own good’ crowds, but when it comes to NGOs and kleptocrats, there is little doubt which is which. Of the Trek series, I best like “Deep Space 9” because they were so busy ducking momentous events that they hardly had any time to join either crowd.

  • DavidfromTacoma

    The difference between religion and government:

    If two young Mormon men are politely knocking at my front door, I can tell them to get the hell off my property.

    If two cops are pounding on my front door …

  • Nick (Blame the French!) Gray

    The Trekkers should have exchanged the solution for the freedom of the dominated species, and they could then be given their own planet- there seem to be lots of planets just waiting for humans to develop them, in the Trekverse!

  • Roue le Jour

    Surely the real issue is ‘does a tribe of hunter/gatherers own the hundreds of square miles they hunt in?’ I can’t see an easy answer that. They are making very inefficient use of a valuable resource. What does the team think?

  • The Federation has always seemed to be a pretty dodgy place to me. Notice that the Enterprise computer, as voiced by Mrs Gene Roddenberry, seems to contain detailed biographies on every Federation citizen?

    The Federation economy has dispensed with both capitalism and money, no one is paid for the work they do, but the economy is still one of scarcity rather than of abundance – regardless of replicators – and there is, to my knowledge, no description of how goods and services are distributed.

    There is something fishy going on here. I note that none of the non affiliated civilisations seem eager to adopt Federation economic practices.

    Now, in the real world, I would expect us to start moving into an economy of abundance maybe even within my lifetime.

    I have always been intrigued how small societies, isolated for generations if not millennia, seem to be bursting with racial diversity…

    Is this taking the discussion too far off topic?

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    Roue le Jour,

    There can be horrendously difficult issues that arise when two competing groups of people may reasonably and sincerely believe that they both have title to the same land, particularly if one or both groups come from societies without a tradition of keeping accurate records.

    But “making very inefficient use of a valuable resource” is not one of the difficult issues. It is irrelevant. I do not concede that my ownership of my property is not legitimate unless approved by a third party according to their criterion of efficiency, and therefore I also do not concede that the Bushmen’s ownership of their property has to pass some test of efficiency applied by a third party. As it happens I have a strong suspicion that the third party in this cases, namely certain members of the Botswanan government, aren’t even pretending very hard to be doing anything other than taking the Bushmen’s land to increase their personal fortunes – but in fact I would say the same were the Botswanan government composed of men of unblemished probity.

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)


    Nah. Rule One of blogging: pop culture references from the blog author’s childhood are never off topic.

  • Paul Marks

    JV and Counting Cats – yes. For example I watched the “Enterprise” episode that JV mentions – and the evil of it (the treatment of “evolution” as some sort of religion, indeed a cult)was chilling. It reminded me of the old “Progressives” – whose ABUSE (misuse) of Darwinism (turning a theory of biology into a theory of ethics) led to such horrors.

    Old Star Trek sneered at businessmen (the only businessmen shown were crooks – and went on about the Federation providing “schools and hospitals”, but “New Generation” was much worse.

    It was full on totalitarianism – yet with constant talk of freedom and liberty.

    Basically – Nancy Pelosi in space.

    It is actually sincere – which makes it worse.

    They (the “liberal” Democrats) really do believe that the government providing everything and controlling everything is compatible with freedom (indeed is freedom).

  • Roger Clague

    Natalie Solent (Essex)
    April 24, 2014 at 7:19 am

    societies without a tradition of keeping accurate records.

    Your ownership of a property is not like the ownership of the Bushmen’s property. You will have made sure your ownership is securely registered. The Bushmen are without records of their ownwership. Why is that? They did not develope the techology to map out and record plots. When faced by people who do they have still failed to get there claims securely registered.

    A capitalist economy does impose an efficiency test. You pay tax on your property. If the Bushmen pay tax the Botwanan government may leave them alone. However that some want land to “increase their personal fortune” is enevitable and a good thing.

  • Jaded Voluntaryist

    Roger I think you have misunderstood. Seeking personal gain in a free market is a good thing for the most part. Abusing and subverting government power for the same reason is not. True capitalism spreads the wealth around, or at least creates a climate where that is possible. Crony capitalism, corruption and regulatory capture channel money from the masses to the corrupt few with no possibility of reciprocity. It is a very bad thing.

    Despite what Gordon Gekko would have you believe, greed is not good. Free markets can however stop greed from being especially bad.

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    Roger Clague,

    Your ownership of a property is not like the ownership of the Bushmen’s property. You will have made sure your ownership is securely registered. The Bushmen are without records of their ownwership. Why is that? They did not develope the techology to map out and record plots. When faced by people who do they have still failed to get there claims securely registered.

    The legitimacy of a claim to own property is not decreased because those claiming it are ignorant or powerless. Let’s take a slightly different example of powerlessness – within our society it can happen that property is inherited by a young child. He or she is incapable of registering ownership. The law still will treat it as fraud if someone more capable and savvy as to the system registers their own claim in the child’s place. (By the way, I do not mean to suggest that the Bushmen are “like children” or should be treated like children, only to put forward another example to illustrate that passing an “efficiency test” of successfully registering ownership is a separate issue from moral claims.)

    I agree that it is prudent for individuals and groups to register property, and that a society that keeps records is likely to have less conflict and be more prosperous. But the whole reason for that is that property rights are defended on principle, irrespective of the failings of those making the claim, i.e. that it is not a matter of “might makes right.”

    However that some want land to “increase their personal fortune” is enevitable and a good thing.

    Wanting to increase your personal fortune by means that do not involve force or fraud is fine and I agree that it is an objective shared by most, if not quite all, of humanity. But when the increase of personal fortune is achieved by means of force or fraud, it is wrong, because force and fraud are wrong.

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    Here is another pop-culture SF reference that I think is relevant to the Bushmen’s plight: in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, remember how just before the Earth is demolished, the Vogons observe the humans panicking and say,

    There’s no point acting all surprised about it. All the planning charts and demolition orders have been on display in your local planning department in Alpha Centauri for fifty of your Earth years, so you’ve had plenty of time to lodge any formal complaint and it’s far too late to start making a fuss about it now.’

    Then “somebody somewhere must have manned a radio transmitter, located a wavelength and broadcast a message back to the Vogon ships” only to get the reply,

    ‘What do you mean you’ve never been to Alpha Centauri? For heaven’s sake mankind, it’s only four light years away you know. I’m sorry, but if you can’t be bothered to take an interest in local affairs that’s your own lookout.’

  • Mr Ed


    Superb reminder. I think that friends of liberty can take much from the Hitchhikers’ series, in many parts, a superb satire on politics and bureaucracy and even the Galactic judges, confiscating life for life being in contempt of court by being neither beautiful nor true.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Natalie, thus:

    “But “making very inefficient use of a valuable resource” is not one of the difficult issues. It is irrelevant. I do not concede that my ownership of my property is not legitimate unless approved by a third party according to their criterion of efficiency….’

    Bingo. *Bletch* Eminent Domain, Vilfrid Pareto, Utilitarianism generally (as THE overriding principle driving public policy), and the golem-horses they all rode in on.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Oh yeah. *Bletch* also the so-called “problem” of the Lone Holdout.

  • Roue le Jour

    My inclusion of phase “making inefficient use” has muddied my argument.

    Why is it theirs? Because they were there first? Does the first man on the Moon then own the Moon? That was my point.

    I’m probably getting mixed up here, but wasn’t that the basis of the Boer War? That the Boers claimed they were the only true citizens (and able to vote) in a land where they had been reduced to a small minority?

    If we are all property owners then it is in our collective interest to defend property rights. But if only one of us is a property owner? Why should someone else defend your property rights if it isn’t in their interests to do so? I’m thinking absentee landlords and tenant farmers, for example.