The Decivilizing Effects of Government

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Recently by Jeffrey A. Tucker: A Different Look at ClassicalLiberalism

This speech was given at the Mises Circle, Colorado Springs, Colorado, September 18, 2010.

Ah, for the days when the socialists believed in material progress! That is no longer the case. Now they propose poverty and advocate government regulations to bring it about — and expect us to be grateful for it. Whereas socialism could not actually work to bring about greater productivity, it can do what the "postmaterialist" socialists desire. Socialistic means can work to bring about lower standards of living.

In a strange way, this is a betrayal of Karl Marx, whose key complaint about capitalism was that it failed to uplift the worker:

The modern laborer … sinks deeper and deeper below the conditions of existence of his own class. He becomes a pauper, and pauperism develops more rapidly than population and wealth.

Lenin’s slogan was "Communism is Soviet power plus electrification of the whole country." Measuring the GDP was a source of great pride for countries, as were big innovations in space travel and military technology.

The same was true with regard to government-planning schemes that fell short of full-scale nationalization. During the Progressive Era, the goal of government policy was the material uplift of the population. The rap on corporate monopolies broken up by antitrust law was that they were a drag on competition and therefore on economic growth. The central bank was pushed as an instrument of fueling economic growth and progress.

The New Deal, which was nothing but a manifestation of the prevailing faith in government planning, sought to improve the material lot of mankind. The idea of progress was embedded in its ideological structure. Every rural community was to get roads and electricity. Farmers were to leave their land and embrace industry. Our backwards attachment to settled rural life would be revolutionized and we would all embrace modern technology brought to us by the state.

Up with Poverty

Somewhere along the way, during the last 50 years, the critique of capitalism changed from condemning its failure to spread the wealth to condemning the very opposite. Suddenly the great sin of capitalism was that it was producing too much, making us all too materialistic, fueling economic growth at the expense of other values, spreading middle-class decadence, and generally causing society to be too caught up in productivity and too focused on the standard of living.

In noting this dramatic change, Murray N. Rothbard writes that the turning point might have been John Kenneth Galbraith’s 1958 work called The Affluent Society, which is one long harangue against consumerism, middle-class decadence, and the ever-increasing wealth of the average person under capitalism. Galbraith claimed that all of this was coming at the expense of public institutions and public infrastructure.

This book became a bestseller. It changed the way the Left went about promoting government intervention and critiquing free markets. This book was the first of a half-century of similar books that recaptured that Rousseauian spirit, that penchant to romanticize the world before industrialization, to toy with the idea that the hunter-gatherer society has a lot going for it, to imagine we can all live better by trading only at the level of the small tribe and raising our own food, and all the rest that comes with primitivism.

The Romance of Hunting and Gathering

The current buzzword to show off this newfound love of lowering the standard of living and of forced poverty is sustainability.

If you want a definition of sustainability, it is this: rolling back the advances of civilization by force.

A quick look at the literature reveals hundreds of titles along these lines: Sustainability by Design: A Subversive Strategy for Transforming Our Consumer Culture; Sustainability Indicators: Measuring the Immeasurable; Return to Sustainability; 147 Tips for Teaching Sustainability; Living Green: A Practical Guide to Simple Sustainability; The Bridge to the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability; Sustainability: An Amazing Picture of What Life Will Soon Be Like; Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability; Future Scenarios: How Communities Can Adapt to Peak Oil and Climate Change.

The author of these last two books, David Holmgren of Australia, is an interesting figure. He is the innovator of this idea that we need to get beyond sustainability. If you have doubts about sustainability, believe me you do not want to go beyond it. I’ve been watching YouTube interviews with this nice fellow. He is always sitting outside, surrounded by natural landscapes and birdsong, and he has this spaghetti-like prose style that is sort of captivating.

He takes it as axiomatically true that oil, gas, and all forms of modern energy production are coming to an end, both because fossil fuels are running out and because people will no longer tolerate a globe that is heating up to intolerable levels due to modernity itself. There is no questioning of these basic assumptions. In one interview, Holmgren makes a passing remark that technology has been on the wrong track for the last 500 years.

Now, keep in mind that these views are not at all out of the mainstream. If I interview most of the shoppers at Earth Fare grocery, as they rummage around for their free-range-chicken eggs, ear candles, and bean-sprout sandwiches made with organic-mulch bread, I could find near-universal agreement that he is completely correct. Such is the ideological fashion of our time.

In one interview, Holmgren speaks with great optimism about the future of suburbia. He says that it can be easily retrofitted to adapt to a new world of sustainability. Remember, he says, that the asphalt parking lots are great for collecting rain water to drink. Our backyards can be turned into gardens for growing our own food. Our garages will be otherwise useless since there will be no cars, so this way we can turn them into workshops for making crafts like benches and chairs and tables and things.

Of course there are a few problems with this vision of the world. There will be no nails with which to make things, because the process of making nails is an incredibly complicated one requiring a vast division of labor and the accumulation and use of capital. There will be no wood either, unless you chop it down from the backyard, since the wood industry as we know it relies very heavily on power tools, fossil-fuel transport, and the division of labor and capital accumulation stretching over many countries.

There is also the problem that people will have to quit their day jobs to do all this gardening and craft making, but of course they will not have a choice since the end of fossil fuels will lead to mass unemployment. I’m not sure how he plans to have water collected from asphalt and distributed house to house except by truck, but perhaps he also has a plan for horse-drawn carriages. Of course you have to actually make the carriages and feed the horses, which introduces other problems.

He doesn’t seem to understand that his plan is not a romantic vision of a world reconnecting with nature but rather a prescription for mass death on an unprecedented scale. In his idyllic time of 500 years ago, there were only 500 million people alive on the whole planet. They didn’t live very well. Today, there are nearly 7 billion people alive on the planet, which means he needs to come up with some way to dispense with the 6.5 billion people who could not be sustained on 500-year-old technology alone.

Of course the irony is not lost on us that my viewing of this video is itself a miracle of modern technology, one that would have been inconceivable even five or ten years ago. Furthermore, ten years ago it would not have been possible for me to purchase his books by clicking a button on a floating electronic monitor, either downloading them to my electronic reader in an instant or having them delivered in physical form tomorrow by truck. So perhaps there is one benefit to his plan: there is no question that, once it is implemented, David Holmgren would no longer be a best-selling author.

Reducing Living Standards by Force

It is easy to dismiss these people as fashionable cranks. We can regard their views as an understandable reaction of the ideologically restless in an age of superabundance.

And truly, anyone is free to downgrade his or her standard of living by choice, and even swear an oath of poverty and stick with it. But it is a fact that this tendency has had a massive effect on the stated purpose and cultural effect of government policy in our times.

Let’s leave aside the ridiculous claims we’ve been hearing for two years that somehow government is going to stimulate the economy (by robbing us more, running up massive debts, and spending on anything and everything). This talk about stimulus is really a departure. The usual rubric under which government policy is pushed today is precisely the opposite: to slow down production, to take away conveniences, and to make us more virtuous by forcing on us a lower standard of living.

This is a prevailing political ethos in our own time, and it is having an effect. We are being constantly told to cut back, consume less, buy locally, go green, carpool, and recycle and save, stop indulging. To this end, consumer products are constantly being banned, every day. We have ever-fewer choices in the area of medicine, chemicals, food, drink, and otherwise, in every aspect of life, sector after sector. All of this amounts to a regression of everything we know as civilization, all that we associate with living better, healthier, smarter, more prosperous, and more cultured lives.

Let us consider, for example, the egregious but ongoing war on the incandescent light bulb, the very symbol of the bright idea and the innovation that ushered in civilization as we know it. Our overlords in government have decided that we should no longer use them since they are "inefficient" — as if bureaucrats rather than consumers and producers are the ones to decide what is or is not efficient. The last factory in the United States that makes these bulbs closed only last week, in preparation for the banning of the incandescent bulb in 2014.

Now, we are told that fluorescent lighting is just great because it gives out as much light, it is better light, and it consumes a fraction of the energy. If all of that were true, there would be no reason to use force at all. The regulators could just stay home and take up other occupations like gardening in their backyards or making crafts in their garages. The shift from incandescent lighting to florescent lighting would be no different from the shift from the iPhone 3G to 4G or Windows XP to Windows 7. It would just be something that consumers would accomplish on their own.

We don’t need government agencies to tell us to upgrade from Photoshop CS4 to CS5 or from our old cars to the latest model of the Honda Accord. Upgrades and shifts from product to product, hopefully along the lines of progress, occur naturally through consumer choice, depending on resource availability and economic priority.

But regulators don’t trust human choice, and I don’t think there is any question that if human choice prevailed here, we would not see the end of incandescent bulbs. This past holiday season, I was shocked to discover that I could not find a string of lights that used normal bulbs; all the light strings were fluorescent. I purchased what was available. To my amazement, the Christmas tree hosting those things did not give off the illusion of being lit up at all. Instead it looked spotted and strange, and very un-Christmaslike. It looked speckled, not lit. The claim that the light is superior in every respect is obviously false.

Now, it is possible that in a free market fluorescent would win the day. But I seriously doubt it, or else why would the governments of the world have to conspire and use force to eliminate incandescent bulbs? It seems clear to me that what we have here is a case in which government is deliberately overriding consumer preference, reducing our standard of living, and doing it with a specific ideological agenda in mind: one that seeks to force to make us less well off, to live poorer, to be poorer, and to decline material progress.

The Return of Bedbugs

This is an exceedingly dangerous trend in government policy. Our country is currently suffering one of the consequences.

There was a rhyme that was common in the 1920s that went: "Sleep tight. Don’t let the bedbugs bite." Generations have thought of it as a quaint saying that has nothing to do with reality.

In fact, bedbugs were almost completely wiped out all over the planet by the 1950s, due to modern, life-saving chemicals like DDT, a chemical invented by scientist Paul Hermann Müller working for a private Swiss company (Novartis) that has been widely smeared but has saved hundreds of millions of lives. Its banning in the early 1970s, under the influence of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, has been blamed for a global calamity.

Thanks in part to this ban, malaria today kills between one and three million people per year. This is shocking but it is not entirely unusual in the sweep of history. It is easy to regard insects as the most dangerous evil on this earth, having killed far more people than gulags, gas chambers, and even nuclear weapons.

In fact, insects are the only things on this earth that have been more dangerous to human welfare than governments — and that’s really saying something. In the 14th century, disease-carrying insects killed off as much as 60% of Europe’s population. The United States has had its own serious issues with yellow fever. We don’t think about this, but this is because we don’t have the black death right now, due mainly to the achievements of capitalism.

Today we are living with a return of bedbugs on an epidemic level. The National Pest Management Association says that nearly all pest-management companies say that they have seen thousands of new bedbug reports from all over the country. There is even a website that tracks this: bedbugregistry.com. This epidemic, which is so bad that even the New York Times published an alarmed editorial, is directly related to the banning of chemicals that had had bedbugs under control.

There are other chemicals besides DDT that control bedbugs such as propoxur, but in 2007 the EPA banned it for indoor use. Now any pest-management company that uses it indoors is threatened with fines and, potentially, with jail. It’s so bad that the Ohio Department of Agriculture has begged the EPA for a change in policy, but the EPA won’t budge. Instead, it advises people to "reduce clutter in your home to reduce hiding places for bed bugs" and also suggests "eliminating bed bug habitats." Oh, and of course the EPA strongly suggests that you work on "raising awareness through education."

The New York Times had a headline story on how the return of bedbugs has baffled scientists. Later in the article, however, the text says that chemicals can control them, but that all those chemicals are currently banned. Well, if the answer is before us but we are forbidden by government to use that answer, or retailers and exterminators are too intimidated by the threatening political culture to take the risk, I don’t see that there is much reason to be baffled by the problem. What is it about cause and effect that these people do not understand?

Now, I don’t want to get into a dispute about chemicals and their effects. Some people say that DDT is no longer effective — but black-market DDT is still a vibrant industry — and that there are downsides to propoxur or that there are other natural and chemical agents that are effective. I’m not a scientist and I have no opinion on which views are correct here. Opinions are all over the map on these questions.

My point is simply this: the market process that would normally allow innovation, trial and error, and the accumulation and implementation of all available scientific knowledge has been subverted by government institutions that have presumed to know what is best, thereby centrally planning the use of chemicals to control pests. Even to bring a new chemical to market requires seven years and some $100 million just to jump through the regulatory thicket, which has a bias against progress, capitalism, and innovation. We end up having to trust experts and competing scientific claims based on rarefied results from tests rather than markets.

Goodbye Hot Water, Hello Trash

Another suggestion we hear about bedbugs is that we should wash our sheets in hot water. Well, that would be fine except that most houses no longer have hot water from the tap. Because of government regulations, our hot water heaters are shipped with a default setting that makes our water lukewarm. The consequences of this are themselves devastating. Our clothes do not get clean. Our bodies do not get clean. Our dishes do not get clean. To change this requires that you open your hot water heater and turn it up to the hottest setting, but not many people know about this trick. If you suggest to a repairman that he do it for you, he will suspect that you are an agent provocateur and run away.

Next we come to the problem of trash. Government policy is increasingly limiting our trash-pickup days, and even limiting the amount of trash we can create. We all know about the attacks on and regulation of landfill space. Then there is the subject of recycling itself, which might have some limited merit under certain conditions in a market environment. But under government, we are forced to sift through our own garbage and separate it according to type to give it to the government so it can push it through specially created machines.

Now, every study ever conducted on recycling shows that it does not save money but rather wastes vast amounts of money and energy with recycling trucks and plants. Most cities have piles and piles of waste that cannot be recycled. There is nothing wrong with voluntary, profitable recycling, but there is much that is crazy and inefficient about centrally planned recycling. But what concerns me more here are the sheer decivilizing implications of having to dig through our trash with our hands, moving it from spot to spot and creating ever more receptacles for holding it for ever longer periods of time.

This is nasty, unsanitary, and probably dangerous at some level. Trash disposal has been an issue since ancient times, and the failure to do it properly has led to death and disaster all the over the world. And yet who is in control of trash disposal today? For no good reason, it is government. If the private sector were in charge, the system would work very differently indeed. There might be a chute that would whoosh away trash instantly, zapping it far from our house and into some incinerator. There is no way to know, because government control has stopped the process of innovation, just as it stopped the process of chemical innovation.

Now we come to one of my favorite subjects, the attack on plumbing. The data indicate that household use of water constitutes less than 1% of total domestic water use. This includes all the water we use for showering, washing, and watering our lawns. And yet government has been on a decades-long campaign to forcibly limit our water use in our own homes. As a result, our toilets no longer work. Our water pressure in our houses is low. Government requires water blockers in all our showerheads so that you can’t even get a decent shower unless you hack your showerhead with a drill.

I can go on with examples of this planned poverty. The attack on medicine is a very serious threat. Pseudoephedrine, a godsend for sufferers of sinus trouble, can no longer be purchased from the drug store in just any quantity. In my own community, there is a lady facing 20 years in jail for buying 4 packages of Sudafed over 12 days from several different pharmacies — an action perfectly legal only a few years ago. You will note too that simple medicines for children’s coughs and aches hardly even work any more. Most have been reduced to the status of placebos under government management of medicine.

There is the attack on asbestos, a wonderful fire-reducing substance that government banned and then imposed massive costs for its removal. It turns out that removing it presents a much greater risk than leaving it. There is the attack on lead paint too.

And let us not forget the extraordinary evil of the attack on the gas-powered car with CAFE standards, the derision of larger and safer cars, the tax-funded and mandatory promotion of the electric car, and general attack on energy, oil, and gas, and the subsidization of wind, water, and electricity. And who can forget that insanity of the attacks on BP for its recent gulf oil disaster? It was a mishap, brought about because of the government’s restrictions on drilling close to shore and liability limits on oil companies. The company should be liable for damages, but utterly destroyed? It is crazy.

If books and learning, the universal distribution of ideas, are essential to civilization, we must be horrified at what the government has done in the case of the Internet. For the first time in history we had the possibility of a global library of all books that have ever been printed, all available online for universal distribution. It would have been the greatest liberation of ideas in human history, embodied in the program known as Google Books. Journals would certainly have been next. Instead, the government created a moral hazard for predatory private interests who have invoked "intellectual property" to destroy the possibility, hinder the spread of ideas, and achieve a literary regress. It is the equivalent of the German state having smashed Gutenberg’s printer just as it was getting going. And the attacks are growing. Intellectual-property enforcement, something that would never exist in a free market, is now the number one threat to the Internet.

Freedom Gives Us Civilization

Are you seeing the pattern here? Government planning was never a good means to do anything, but at least there was a time when it set out to bring progress to humanity. It was the wrong means to achieve the right goal. Today, government planning is working as a maliciously effective means to achieve the wrong goal: I mean by this that if there is anything that government is actually good at doing, it is destroying things.

Even so, in seeking to reduce our standard of living and drive us backwards in the progress of civilization, the government really is playing with fire, unleashing evils that are unknown to us today.

Never forget that it was not government but freedom that gave us civilization. Freedom gave rise to innovation, the unleashing of human ingenuity that built cities and expanded the division of labor across the globe. It tripled the average lifespan. Freedom gave us universal distribution of food, medicine, music, and learning. Freedom created the wealth that funds our churches, centers of research, civic associations, dance troupes, art museums, and nature preserves. Freedom is what allows institutions like the Mises Institute to exist and experience vibrant growth. Only a free and wealthy society permits civilization to flourish for everyone.

Joseph Schumpeter said that the great tragedy of capitalism is that it produces riches so abundant that people tend to take them for granted, imagining that they can hobble and destroy its productive machinery without great economic and social consequence. This is precisely what is happening today. This tendency to romanticize poverty and simplicity and a world without modern technology is an ideology that is animating the antics of many of today’s intellectuals, politicians, and bureaucrats who have set themselves up as enemies of all that makes life grand, which is to say that they set themselves up as enemies of freedom.

Especially now, our taxes are paying not for civilization but rather for its destruction.

This appeared on Mises.org.

Jeffrey Tucker [send him mail] is editorial vice president of www.Mises.org.

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