We're Holier Than Thou, China
Jude Wanniski
April 17, 1997


Memo To: House Majority Leader Dick Armey
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: 'Moral Equivalence'

In your weekend appearance on the "Evans&Novak" show, you raised the possibility that you would take off your Adam Smith hat this year, change your free-trade position, and vote against Most-Favored-Nation trade status of the People's Republic of China. You indicated that the Beijing government has been trying your patience by selling arms abroad, by its recent record on Human Rights, by its treatment of Christian religious worship, by its firing of missiles in the Taiwan Strait, and generally because you think things have been getting worse in China. I disagree, believing the situation in China continues to improve, but that the China-bashers now sense an opportunity to strike a blow by intensifying their own propaganda. The coalition includes the most conservative Republicans and the most liberal Democrats, coalescing for different objectives. It is in the interest of each to exaggerate their case even to the point of outlandish propaganda.

When I called your office Monday, I suggested to your staff that they not accept the arguments of the Beltway China bashers, but to do their own research for you. In calling around to conservative journalists or Hill staff people to express my dismay at this volley of propaganda, I am admonished for being guilty of treating "the bloodthirsty Chinese" as if there were a "moral equivalence" between us. I'm careful to say, though, that there are several times more abortions in the United States than in China, that it has been years since we've heard charges of forced abortion, that Christians now worship more freely in China than at any time since the '49 revolution, that we sell several times the amount of arms abroad as do the Chinese, that their total budget for national defense of $7 billion is about what we spend on popcorn. The missiles they fired in the Taiwan Strait a year ago were in their own territorial waters, not meant to intimidate Taiwan, but to remind us that they are serious in asserting their claim that Taiwan is a province of China. I have to point out that our government has officially recognized Taiwan as a province of China. When the China bashers ask why I support a regime that caused the slaughter at Tiananmen Square, I asked how we can support a regime that caused the slaughter at Waco, Texas. For all this, I'm accused of being guilty of practicing "moral equivalence."

What's behind this term "moral equivalence"? To me, it seems fair to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. The Golden Rule, first formulated by Confucius and later by Christ and Hillel, is the moral standard, isn't it? In the last two years, it is this concept of "moral equivalence" that has caused me to find myself losing every foreign-policy argument with old friends. No matter what facts I present, no matter my logic, in the end I am always defeated by having "moral equivalence" thrown in my face. When I point out that we have 1.5 million in prison out of a population of 250 million, and China has 250,000 in prison out of a population of 1.2 billion, I'm told our prisoners, mostly African American males, are justly imprisoned, and theirs are not. Moral equivalence. When I point out that China pays its assessment at the United Nations, and we do not, I'm told about moral equivalence. When I point out that we helped construct the World Trade Organization to adjudicate commercial disputes between sovereign powers, but refuse to allow China to join the WTO so we can adjudicate in a kongressional kangaroo kourt, I'm told China has to earn the right to live by the laws we set for ourselves and others. In other words, because the United States is Holier Than Thou, it need not take the perspective, facts or logic of other sovereign nations into account in deciding how to treat them. This is the essence of triumphalism, the United States as imperial dictator.

I'm told Republican free traders should all take off their Adam Smith hats and vote to impose Smoot-Hawley tariffs on China because "MFN shouldn't only be about making money." To that I agree. "MFN can be about anything Congress wants it to be about." If China were slipping backward into the depths of its Cultural Revolution, I'd even consider suspending diplomatic relations. But if you really believe that things are getting worse in China, so much so that your patience is being tried, you have been misinformed. By any standard of measure, the people of China are better off today than they were a year ago when you voted MFN, much much better off than they were two years ago, and incredibly better off than they were 30 years ago. Admittedly, by a floating holier-than-thou fiat system of moral inequivalence we can say the Chinese people are worse off today. By the same floating standard, we can say the people of the United States are better off today than they were 30 years ago. We can say the divorce rate is lower, although it is higher. We can say the abortion rate is lower, although it is higher. We can say the crime rate is down, although it is up. We can say there are fewer men in prison, although there are many more. We can say real wages are up and sufficient for ordinary men to be able to support a family of four without two jobs, but you can know better. We can say our tax system is simpler, kinder, and gentler than it was 30 years ago, with far less intrusion into our lives by IRS spies, but why then would we bother to discuss a flat tax? We can say our movies and our books and our video fare are much more conducive to moral values, family values, but saying so doesn't make it so.

The reason I'm directing these remarks at you, Dick, is that as one of the most important leaders in our government, you are the one at the highest level who shocked me the most in saying you are reconsidering your MFN vote. You are one of the most powerful men on the planet, especially with Newt being crippled both politically and psychologically. I would hope that before you proceed any further, you play a more constructive role in finding facts on which to base your decision and then do so according to at least a reasonable approximation of the Golden Rule.