Monday, November 25, 2002

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AIDS, THE WEST, AND THE REST: Jerry Falwell used to argue that AIDS was God's way of killing homosexuals for their acts of apostasy. Lefties used to believe that the CIA created AIDS to wipe out those who opposed the American government. In the wake of 9/11, such conspiracy theories seem passé. However, the spread of AIDS is going to raise some profound questions about the future of different types of states. And, oddly enough, the lefties might have been unintentionally correct -- AIDS will increase America's relative power in the long run.

If you think I'm exaggerating the impact of AIDS on national security, consider this NYT story on the effect of AIDS on African militaries. Consider this projection of India's infection rate. Here's the UN's take on AIDS in Asia more generally. And, having just returned from a conference on Russia, it's been made pretty clear to me that the problem is about to explode in that country as well.

There are two basic ways to combat the deleterious effects of AIDS on society -- information and innovation. Information about what AIDS is, how it can be transmitted, etc. helps to reduce the spread of infection. But it's damn hard for most societies to be able to discuss sexual matters in an honest manner. Only in a open, liberal society can accurate messages about prevention spread (Consider this story from Buffalo, NY). Just as important, only in these societies can ill-founded myths about the disease be falsified. As for innovation, only a society that prizes scientific inquiry, rewards innovation and protects the rights of the innovators is there any individual motivation to discover vaccines and cures. Again, you need a liberal, affluent society to be able to provide the proper incentives.

Some, like Falwell, may argue that there is another option -- a fundamentalist regime that actually gets its citizens practice sexual abstinence. This could work in theory, but it's a much less robust strategy. Once AIDS occurs in these societies, it's impossible to stop, since the state can't admit its existence without admitting its founding principles are being violated. Any discussion would have to admit the possibility of illicit sex and drug use. In fact, the spread of AIDS in totalitarian societies is likely to be much faster because of the state's reluctance to ever publicly broach the topic.

Realists believe that we live in a Hobbesian world in which all gains are strictly relative. If you accept that worldview, one can only conclude that AIDS is a boon to the West. It will incapacitate any society that is so beholden to religious conservatives that either sex or drug use cannot be a topic of public discussion.

To be clear: I'm NOT claiming to be happy about the impending death of billions. I'm not. But I do find it interesting that the societies that the Christian right claimed were bringing AIDS upon themselves are in fact the ones best equipped to cope with the scourge.

UPDATE: Thanks to Andrew Sullivan for the link; check out this LA Times story on the alarming increase in AIDS infections in societies that are ill-equipped to deal with the disease, and the potential for AIDS to lead to mass famine in Africa. Here's the actual UN study.

CORRECTION: My original version of this post stated that Phyllis Schlafly made the comment that AIDS being God's will against homosexuals. That was my error, for which I apologize. According to this article, Schlafly did accuse C.Everett Koop of promoting "safe fornication with condoms" as "a cover-up for the homosexual community" when Koop promoted condom use as a means of prevention.

posted by Dan on 11.25.02 at 03:32 PM