Lessons on liberty from an Ethiopian taxi driver


Blue Nile Falls in Ethiopia, Photo credit: CT Snow

On my way to the airport after a recent conference in Seattle, I had an interesting chat with a taxi driver. “Eddie” is originally from Ethiopia but has lived in the United States for the last seven years. He lived first in Aurora, Colo., but preferred Seattle because the climate and vegetation reminded him of the region where he grew up in Ethiopia.

I asked Eddie why there was often so much hunger in Ethiopia. He said it starts with severe drought, but is made much worse because of corruption. He said the government buys and stores crops from farmers, but then only resells them at exorbitant prices to those who can pay. Emergency food and supplies from other countries are confiscated by the government and rarely reach those who need them most.

Eddie explained that Ethiopians have complained and demonstrated, but Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, whom Eddie considers a dictator, resorts to jailing – and sometimes killing – members of opposition groups.

Eddie said that the people desire democracy but feel helpless. Should the U.S., then, act as the “world police” and come in and remove Zenawi? Eddie’s answer: no. He feels it is not fair to the American people or its soldiers to fight and die for another country. Eddie did say he was in favor of receiving other types of support from America: diplomatic pressure and arms and money for opposition groups.

When I asked Eddie why he thought the U.S. has not put more pressure on Zenawi, he said it is simple: Zenawi supports the U.S. in its efforts against terrorists.

A few thoughts:

1. Human beings yearn to be free. The human soul understands and desires fairness and liberty.

2. When a country’s internal governing system is too weak to root out serious corruption, then any alternative solution is very complex, with an extremely low likelihood of success. Eddie talked about the elections of 2005, which were highly disputed. Police killed 193 protesters. Government and opposition groups blamed each other for the violence. Several international monitoring organizations questioned the legitimacy of the elections. Yet the U.S. and Britain have praised the burgeoning democratic process in Ethiopia.

3. The question of the role of the U.S. in international affairs is a bit of a puzzler. On the one hand, it is hard for decent humans to stand idly by while other humans suffer at the hand of evil. On the other hand, history shows Western intervention has often caused more problems than it solves. Britain’s actions as 19th- and 20th-century imperial meddler, for example, redrawing borders and lumping disparate religious and ethnic groups together (especially Iraq, but also India), has had dire consequences for the Middle East over the last century. Additionally, cost vs. benefit for the U.S. and the people it is trying to help in Iraq and Afghanistan is hard to calculate.

Yet most would argue the West’s role in World War II, for instance, was critical and “right.” But in that case, the “good guys” and “bad guys” were easy to identify. Often, as is the case with the “Arab Spring,” it is difficult for the U.S. to correctly identify trustworthy, decent, humane allies that will best serve their people and U.S. interests.

These issues raise a lot of difficult questions: Should the U.S. be the world’s police? Should the world’s lone superpower continue in the regions where it currently has conflicts so it doesn’t expose its allies in those countries to devastating retribution? Should America expand its efforts into other countries? Should it pull out of all conflicts altogether? If it’s the last option, then British-American historian Bernard Lewis said it best: “America is harmless as an enemy and treacherous as a friend.”

Whatever you think we should do as a nation, Utahns can use Ethiopia as a reminder: Active participation in our state’s policy and lawmaking is the best way to protect our liberties and ensure Utah remains one of the best places to live, work and raise a family. Remember the words of Thomas Jefferson: “The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield, and government to gain ground.”