Years ago, and maybe still to this day, there was an institution called the rent party. This was a party held by people who could not raise that month's rent. You came, you drank, you partied and you contributed something toward the rent. There was no disgrace. Into each life, a rent party can fall.
Lately, the rent party mentality seems to have gone national -- if not international. First came the Live Aid concert last July, which raised money for the starving in Africa and in the process earned lots of entries in the Guinness Book of World Records: Money raised, $58 million; acts performed, 36; total amount of television time, 16 hours; estimated television audience 1.5 billion people.
And then, just the other day, came the Farm Aid concert, organized by Willie Nelson. This event raised an initial $3 million, received pledges for $4 million more and reported donations coming in at the rate of $500,000 an hour. The purpose of this concert was to help the American farmer. The only problem is that neither Nelson nor anyone else knows how this is to be done.
That's all right. No one knows quite what to do about African famine either. After some of the dying have been saved and the sick nursed back to health, the fact is that Ethiopia remains a hellhole -- a nation split by a civil war, mismanaged by a doctrinaire Marxist government and plagued, as are other African nations, with drought. No concert can change any of that.
There's nothing wrong with holding concerts to save lives. In fact, Bob Geldof, the organizer of the Live Aid concert, and Willie Nelson, the spirit behind Farm Aid, ought to be congratulated. In a world where most people do nothing, they have done something.
The trouble is that in their own ways the two concerts have depoliticized what are essentially political problems. Sure, there may be a farmer here and there who has simply fallen upon hard times. For him or her, a rent party would suffice. But the farm problem is institutional, the product of a particular economic system and certain economic decisions made by government. The only thing that can solve it, if a solution is possible, is government.
The same is true of African famine. To a degree, the famine is induced by nature. But drought is commonplace in Africa, and governments have the obligation to plan for it. When they pursue wrongheaded agricultural policies, when the theories of a 19th century German intellectual take precedence over the experience of centuries, then Mother Nature is off the hook. At best, it is guilty of contributory negligence.
The organizers of the Farm Aid concert acknowledged that no matter how much money they raised, it wouldn't alleviate the farm crisis. What they did not acknowledge is that they had fallen victim to the mentality of the times -- an Andy Hardyism that emanates from the White House and holds that government is both powerless and incompetent. Voluntarism is the trick.
As with anything else, there is both truth to Andy Hardyism and limits to it. In the case of farmers and starving Africans, its limitations are manifest. It is fantasy to suggest that a bunch of rock stars can do anything more than entertain lots of people and make a marginal difference in the lives of a few others. They should not be faulted for trying, but, in life as in school, effort is not everything. Results also count.
And it is cruel to suggest that the farm problem is amenable to creeping Andy Hardyism -- that it can be taken apart into component individual farmers and that they, one by one, can be helped. What would help them is a different government policy or, barring that, an admission from the government that farmers, like steel workers, are expendable. Either way, government and its policies are the answer. In the meantime, the concerts are fun, but when the songs have faded, more than fond memories remain. So do the problems.