Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the universe.
~ Albert Einstein
If I had any inclinations for gambling, I would head for Las Vegas and bet all I own that most of mankind will, given the opportunity, support the most idiotic and fantastic propositions over any objections grounded in reasoned analysis. As humanity — particularly from its most highly-educated precincts — continued to increase my winnings, I would be heard telling the house to "let it ride!"
Our tendencies for dull-wittedness are fostered by the uncertain and unpredictable nature of a complex world. For reasons that go beyond survival needs, we have a fear of the unknown, and are easily taken in by our self-generated delusions as well as by those who promise us protection from menacing forces. Most intellectuals long ago figured out that they could gain self-serving power over their fellow humans not only by playing upon such fears, but concocting an endless list of bogeymen with which to transform uncertainty into fright. Political, religious, and ideological systems have thus been created to induce the fear-ridden to huddle together for protection promised by the fear-mongers. The "Nine Bows from across the river" who were used to frighten our more primitive ancestors, have been transformed into the modern "terrorist," but the same underlying dynamic is at work.
Such practices have metastasized into the modern state, whose architects exploited the fears they helped to generate of individual autonomy and spontaneously-ordered social systems. "The world is too complex to operate without intelligent direction," they intoned, "and we must substitute the certainty of government regulation for the inconstancies of a self-directed world."
History, of course, has long informed us of the dangers inherent in government, whose very nature derives from a monopoly on the use of force. Intellectuals, desirous of minimizing concerns over such dangers, responded with the idea of written constitutions that could be used to restrain state power and thus protect the life, liberty, and property interests of people. Our ancestors, as well as ourselves, failed to consider that the words contained in such documents were inherently ambiguous and subject to interpretation, a power we navely left to political agencies to exercise.
Statism has been further advanced by the idea — whose ancestry goes back to at least Plato — that government officials, aided by "experts" in various fields, could effectively plan and regulate human action in order to achieve desired ends. Such presumed omniscience has been particularly attractive, in our commercial and industrial world, to men and women who have little understanding of the self-regulating nature of marketplace economic systems. The fear that one’s well-being could be subject to processes over which no one in "authority" was able to exercise control, led most of us to take comfort in the idea of state planning and regulation of economic behavior.
When political regulations and other interventions generate crises, the intellectuals have used such dislocations to promote increased state controls over the marketplace. An example of this can be seen in Murray Rothbard’s classic America’s Great Depression. It is no coincidence that so many Western nations succumbed to fear-induced collectivism as a response to the disorder of the 1930s. Instead of questioning the statist assumptions that had done so much to create these conditions, many intellectuals saw the opportunity to extend their destructive ambitions. Germany, Russia, Italy, Spain, and the United States, provided the more dramatic examples of authoritarian societies run from the top down through the coercive powers of the state. Socialism — in both its more virulent Marxist expressions as well as its lesser Fabian forms — has long attracted those who enjoyed the "leisure of the theory class." This secular religion continues to be celebrated in the gospels of "equality" as well as the "original sin" of "self-interest." Boobus, subservient to the fears and wizardry provided by those who presumed to rule him, continues to respond as his Pavlovian conditioning has trained him.
In recent decades, however, it has become increasingly evident that human society can no more be centrally-directed than can your bodily activities be consciously-managed by your brain. The Soviet Union — perhaps the most arrogant exemplar of the fallacy of state planning and direction — played out its inherent contradictions and conflicts with reality and has been relegated to history’s dust-bin of failures. America appears to be undergoing many of the same consequences of trying to force humankind to be other than what it is. Fuel, food, and water shortages; expanded warfare; rapidly escalating prices; home foreclosures; personal and corporate bankruptcies; increased banking failures; and rising unemployment; are just a few examples of the ill-health of a society subjected to the hubris of state planning.
When the failures of our expectations begin to accumulate — resulting in the political, economic, and social turbulence we are now experiencing — what has been the response of most Americans? The study of chaos and complexity advise us that, at such points, we are faced with two basic choices: either to rethink our underlying assumptions and discover fundamentally new systems of organization (i.e., to learn), or to make no effective response and allow the accelerating entropic collapse to play itself out.
Sadly, most of our neighbors opt for the latter default position. It seems to be a characteristic of human nature that, when a fundamental belief system fails — without people having made a major transformation in their thinking — far too many of us respond to the resulting crises by increasing our energies as a renewal of faith in the dying system. Most of us are unable to accept the impartial judgments that arise from nature and the laws of causation producing consequences that are incompatible with our ideological and institutional commitments. This may be the reason that expanded warfare has been part of the death throes of some collapsing civilizations. If the state is defined in terms of its capacities for violence, perhaps its declining authority can be revived through orgiastic explosions of destructiveness.
Though socialism has revealed itself to be a failure, true-believers in the theology of statism continue to espouse the faith. With the collapse of the Soviet Union — and, consequently, the end of the Cold War — America was left without a raison d’tre for its exercise of massive power over its citizenry and their property. A new purpose for such authority had to be discovered. The events of 9/11 provided one such rationale in the form of so-called "international terrorism." Another such pretext is being developed in the name of "environmentalism." Men and women who had been urged to sacrifice and obey in the name of saving the "free world" from the ravages of "communism," are now being urged to do the same in order to "save the planet." Whatever the avowed threat, the state’s objectives remain fixed: to maintain its accumulated base of power over the lives, property, and conduct of people.
When the earlier "threat" of "global cooling" was jettisoned in favor of the menace of "global warming" — both of which then morphed into "global change" — the specifics of regulatory programs were modified, but the presence of an all-encompassing state power remained constant. "Environmentalism" is the new secular religion, replete with all the trappings of more traditional religions. Mankind’s very presence on the planet operates as a kind of "original sin," with humans representing a threat to the "Garden of Eden" enjoyed by other life forms. Such sins as "self-interest," "private property," "individualism," and "consumerism" (among others) — "wrongs" against which socialists have consistently railed — are made the targets of harangues by a bevy of secular Elmer Gantrys.
While many members of the scientific community — who rely upon the largess of the state for their research funding — are willing to play the priesthood role in this new religion, the reality is that they do not reflect a consensus among scientists about the causes or the consequences of global warming. As the Manhattan Project reminds us, scientists are no more immune to the urgings of the state than are any other categories of men and women. In his interesting book, The End of the World: A History, Otto Friedrich tells of the 14th century efforts of France’s King Philip to have the University of Paris medical faculty explain the causes of the Black Death that devastated Europe. In words that echo with the same implausibility one hears from some modern scientists on the subject of global warming, Friedrich writes: "The professors reported that a disturbance in the skies had caused the sun to overheat the oceans near India, and the waters had begun to give off noxious vapors."
With socialism no longer providing a credible basis for men and women being herded into collectives on behalf of some visionary brave new world, the control zealots have turned to the "environment" as a cause around which to organize the sacrifice of the lives of others. Because political systems are inherently inefficient, and increase the costs of human activity, their burdens upon mankind will continue. The food, gasoline, housing, health-care, and other shortages that ensued from earlier forms of state regulation will continue, but the rationale for such mandated deprivations will change.
Barack Obama hinted at this new underlying purpose, and revealed his neo-Malthusian sentiments, by recently stating that "we can’t drive our SUVs and eat as much as we want and keep our homes on 72 degrees at all times . . . and then just expect that other countries are going to say OK." Some scientists have opined that over-weight people contribute to global warming by increasing the costs associated with their transportation. An academic economist has proposed that food purchased at fast food drive-through windows be further taxed as a way of forcing customers to walk to get their food orders. Snack items are prohibited at many government schools. The "obese police" and "calorie cops" may become another threat to our liberty, while the "food court" will no longer be just an area within a shopping mall, but an arm of the judicial system.
It misses the point to confine criticism of such political propositions to a lack of housebreaking on the part of people-pushers. It is the obsession with having power over others that drives this class of social misfits. Those who wish to enjoy the authority built up by previous concocted threats, must have credible grounds for doing so. Boobus must be convinced of a plausible threat to an important interest, although he is not too discerning as to the nature of the alleged menace. Global "cooling," global "warming," global "terrorism": it really doesn’t matter, so long as "experts," government officials, and the media have reached a consensus as to the identity of the threat du jour.
To "make the world safe for democracy" or to have the state plan and direct economic activity, will no longer suffice. We shall now redeploy the massive powers and machinery of the state to "save the planet" from mankind’s profligacy! Government control of human behavior will no longer be rationalized on the grounds of enhancing the quality of life for mankind: quite the contrary. To eat well, to travel, to live in a comfortable setting, to enjoy various luxuries, will come to be regarded as expressions of a new category of sins. Such deprivations of human well-being will not be seen as failures of governmental planning, but as successes.
The recycling of toilet water into municipal water supplies — an activity already underway in some cities — will be defended as programs to protect lakes, rivers, and aquifers. The mass starvations in such places as East Africa will no longer be viewed as evidence of the inherent ineffectiveness of state regulation, but as collective commitments to the "greater good" of saving the planet from the appetites of mankind! We may even find ourselves living out Ted Turner’s prognosis of mass cannibalism, a future wherein collectivists will finally realize their dream of "serving" their fellow man! The animal-rights brigade may be enlisted to make the case that eating other life forms is another sin we humans perpetrate against the presumed rightful owners of the planet. That a lioness is no more a respecter of the "rights" of its prey than is a man sitting down to a steak dinner, will not dissuade these moral crusaders. Light bulbs that provide reduced lighting will help to keep us all in a darkened world. Wars might come to be seen as virtuous, for their capacities to destroy the factories that manufacture energy-consuming products — including automobiles and the oil refineries that power them — as well as disposing of tens of millions of humans who continue to insist upon the sin of wanting to live well.
All of this should remind us that our minds are capable of generating all kinds of visions of reality — some that reflect reality, others that are quite fanciful. It is the role of rational and well-informed minds to engage in the critical thinking that will distinguish the former from the latter. If the forces of nature do not conform themselves to our visions, so much the worse for reality, which shall simply be redefined. With bold political leadership and a forceful insistence upon our collective mindset, what chance does nature have to thwart our visions of how it ought to behave?
Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law. He is the author of Calculated Chaos: Institutional Threats to Peace and Human Survival.