The Government and the Airplane

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Living
as a free man – that is, living without cable television –
may have made me miss some spectacular events, but by and large
I had at least heard or read about them. I know that President Bush
arrived on a naval ship somewhere from a fighter jet and announced
"mission accomplished." But I never saw it, nor his Thanksgiving
speech in Baghdad. And I've managed to miss his last three State
of the Union Speeches.

I
also missed Joe Namath's embarrassing, but understandable, come-on
to Suzy Kolber. And Madonna locking lips with a girl half her age
on MTV.

While
missing cable tv, I've managed to miss not only the President, but
pro-war propaganda Fox News, and also propaganda for long-ago wars
from the History Channel (what me and my friends used to call, along
with A&E and PBS, one of the "Hitler Channels"). I
also managed to miss many a meaningless college basketball and major
league baseball game, plus "Behind the Music" and "True
Hollywood Story."

But
what I didn't think I'd miss, was a celebration of 100 Years of
Flight. But I did. I had no idea what date it was in 1903 that the
Wright Brothers successfully launched their airplane – I just knew
it was sometime in 1903. Most of the time I didn't even think about
it, but as the year progressed, I began asking around: Does anybody
know if there's going to be some big celebration of the Wright Brothers?

No
one had any idea.

The
year passed me by without a single notice of a Big Celebration for
100 Years of Flight. And, though I don't watch tv, I listen to radio
and surf the Internet quite a lot.

Sure,
there must have been some television program and some ceremony somewhere,
but it didn't get the coverage I would have expected: the point
is that I didn't look for it because I assumed it would come
to me.

Though
I didn't really know what, in reality, I'd expect from such a program.
The impact of the airplane on the world is really impossible to
fully grasp. And it is impossible to say if it's actually been a
net benefit on the world. Yes, millions of people are able to get
from point A to point B quicker. Vacationing in Europe is possible
for people with average incomes who don't have the allotted vacation
days to take a train to New York and then spend several days on
an ocean liner.

On
the other hand, the father who wants to walk out on his wife, but
still keep in touch with his kids, is less likely to move from Chicago
to San Francisco if he had to travel by rail or highway instead
of air to see his kids several times a year.

And
then there's the social cost of the government exercising "eminent
domain" to demolish private homes to build runways that benefit
privately-owned airlines. And of the government's direct
subsidies of airlines at the cost of the taxpayer. Airlines have
a hard time making a profit. George
Will
has estimated that the entire airline industry has not
profited the nation by a nickel, and certainly not since 1945.

And,
of course, the airplane has been the world's deadliest weapon – or should I say, the indispensable carrier of the deadliest weapons.
From Dresden to Tokyo to Vietnam to Belgrade to Baghdad, the victims
of modern war have been primarily civilians, not young men who at
least have rifles in their hands and can shoot back. And then there's
Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And Sept 11, after which we could say, "airplanes
don't kill people, terrorists kill people."

But
this is no knock on Orville and Wilbur Wright. None of the
tragic consequences of their own successful but risky experiments
in flight are their responsibility. There is nothing wrong with
what they accomplished.

Just
as there was nothing wrong with the steam engine or in building
an automobile. But the government subsidies of the railroads beginning
in 1861, which
helped provoke Southern secession
and our shameful wars against
the plains Indians, seems like a mighty high price to pay.

As
Garet Garret pointed out in The American Story, the problem
began with the unconstitutional Louisiana Purchase. The United States
had too much land, and too few Americans to settle it. This problem
was made worse when the United States conquered half of Mexico during
the Polk Administration – a war based on lies – followed
by the Gold Rush in California in 1849.

Too
many people moved West, became farmers, and, well, grew too much
food. And then the government-funded railroads exacerbated this
problem by making the transport of American grain back east relatively
convenient.

The
ideals of Thomas Jefferson and Albert Jay Nock had been replaced:
the farmer who lives independently, diversifying his crops and livestock
so that he can feed his family off of his own land, and then sell
the surplus at market in order to purchase other supplies he can't
produce himself, had been replaced. His replacement was a cash-crop
grower, and economic "producer" who relied on mass-production
techniques for his crops. The problem is, there were too many producers,
spurred on to move to the Plains, deceived by the government's ill-gotten
acquisition of those lands. Mass-production of various grains and
livestock saturates the market and prices fall.

Agriculture
in the United States has never recovered. At the cost of the taxpayer,
the government unjustly conquered lands and, instead of leaving
the free-market alone to decide when inter-continental railroads
would be profitable, the government encouraged both settlement (that
is, way too many farms) and the railroads by advertising
free lands to easterners and Europeans.

The
fascist idea of the government paying the farmer to not grow
food, and its regulations and management that raise food prices
on the poor, are today's social costs, the residue of the evils
the government did in the 19th century. Whereas once the allure
of farming was relative self-sufficiency and independence –
freedom – now farmers are virtual wards of the State.

Because
of the federal government, the United States got too big, too powerful,
too quickly. As we are still a young nation, we don't even realize
that this is what happened, and we tend to trivialize the massive
injustices of the past, and overlook the massive injustices of the
present. And gloss over the injustices of the future (debt-induced
inflation, Social Security bankruptcy, perpetual warfare).

So
I think the Wright brothers haven't gotten their due. Despite the
mess the federal government accomplished in the 1800's, by 1903
two brothers were still free to test their machines at the risk
of their own death. The government didn't prohibit them from doing
what they were doing. The government didn't even require them to
wear crash helmets. Better yet, the government didn't hire them
at cushy salaries with the hope that, in two or three decades, they
might come up with something. Nor did the government hire
similar people by the hundreds in a sort of nationalistic contest
with Britain, France and Germany as to who will "conquer the
air" first. (Although if the idea came to him, no doubt President
Theodore Roosevelt would have encouraged such a fiasco).

It
is not because the government did too little, but because the government
did much too much with the Wrights' invention that we can
look upon it with some sense of regret. Homes destroyed to build
runways. Massive bail-outs and labor protection. Massive security
lapses which no unregulated private insurance company or security
firm would have tolerated. Decades of government price-fixing.

And
all of it seems to prove that either the market has not found a
way to launch an airliner justly and inexpensively, or that if this
is possible today, government intervention has made it impossible.

I
can't say if that's true or not. But it is clear that our "mobile"
society was created by government robbery and jobbery. The free
market didn't build most of our inter-continental railroads. The
free market didn't build our highways.

These
are usually given as excuses in favor of government subsidies
and "public projects." The reality, however, is that the
free market failed to purchase Louisiana from France, or steal land
from Mexico either. Or invade the South to collect a tariff to protect
northern industrialists.

It
is only because "Government" claims that which it does
not own, that it can then justify doing what the market doesn't
desire. If the free market demanded a cure for AIDS sooner than
for cancer, I couldn't complain. But because the government
wants to allocate my money for one instead of the other, I have
every right to object.

When
the government, by its force of coercion, artificially creates an
"opportunity," then profit-seekers will naturally go to
it. Why compete in a free market when the government is providing
subsidies, regulatory protections, and give-aways?

This
is when Frdric Bastiat's classic essay on the "Broken Window"
reaches its uncomfortable effects. What would have been done, if
there wasn't government coercion in the world. The classic view
of the Statist, of the utilitarian and the neo-conservative, of
the communist and the fascist, is that "you can't make an omelet
without breaking a few eggs." But then again, an unbroken,
fertilized egg becomes a bird.

What
would have happened if, every step of the way, Americans chose independence
over coercion, liberty over taxation and regulation? Freedom instead
of force? Bastiat gives us the answer: that which wasn't needlessly
destroyed (whether it be a pane of glass, or our liberties, or our
lives, or our wealth not confiscated by taxes) is an asset to society.
Greater social benefit comes from greater production from the division
of labor, not from taking from some to the benefit of others.

Whether
it's taking from some who'd rather donate their money to fighting
leukemia who see that money taxed because the government prefers
battling AIDS, or from those who prefer ocean exploration to space
exploration, or from those who create popular art instead of unpopular
art, the principle is the same. Every time the government decides
to crack down on our lives, liberties, and properties for the sake
of the "greater good," the only people it really benefits
are the politicians, government bureaucrats, and clients who decided
it's easier to make money off of the generosity of the government
than learn how to earn it from the free market, from the actual
choices of free individuals. It's easier, and therefore more alluring,
to live off of the taxpaying slave than from the free individual
consumer.

I'm
not suggesting that we undo every wrong from the past; that is impossible.
But we can start changing our ways. We might not give back
Louisiana Territory to France, or the Southwest to Mexico. But we
can give each person, in the here and now, a decent chance for a
better life free from government interference. The evils of generations
past is not our generations' fault. And what we owe the descendents
of the victims of past evils is not some sort of "restitution"
which our generation doesn't, morally, owe them, but rather just
the end of such evil ways.

No
more regulations and licenses to keep people down. If an unemployed
woman can give a decent hair cut, let her charge her own rates,
even if she has a housecat or barefoot children on her premises.
If you got fired from your job but own a car, make a sign on your
car and become a taxicab to make some money.

For
too long we've thought that "social justice" means favoring
some industries over others, some tax brackets over others as a
sort of "payback" for previous social injustices. But
true social justice begins with individual liberty and personal
responsibility. If the Wright Brothers would try to conquer the
air without helmets or parachutes, surely the market would benefit
from those who can give cheaper haircuts or taxi rides at virtually
no risk to the consumer.

The
triumph of Orville and Wilbur Wright is a witness to the freedom
that once existed in our country. It's too bad that the government
tried to "fix" what wasn't broken, with the airplane and
much else, and that we're still paying the price.

February
2, 2004

James
Leroy Wilson [send him mail]
lives and works in Chicago and is a columnist for the Partial
Observer
.


        
        

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