The Mindset of the Left

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When teenage thugs are called “troubled youth” by people on the political left, that tells us more about the mindset of the left than about these young hoodlums.

Seldom is there a speck of evidence that the thugs are troubled, and often there is ample evidence that they are in fact enjoying themselves, as they create trouble and dangers for others.

Why then the built-in excuse, when juvenile hoodlums are called “troubled youth” and mass murderers are just assumed to be “insane”?

At least as far back as the 18th century, the left has struggled to avoid facing the plain fact of evil – that some people simply choose to do things that they know to be wrong when they do them. Every kind of excuse, from poverty to an unhappy childhood, is used by the left to explain and excuse evil.

All the people who have come out of poverty or unhappy childhoods, or both, and become decent and productive human beings, are ignored. So are the evils committed by people raised in wealth and privilege, including kings, conquerors and slaveowners.

Why has evil been such a hard concept for many on the left to accept? The basic agenda of the left is to change external conditions. But what if the problem is internal? What if the real problem is the cussedness of human beings?

Rousseau denied this in the 18th century and the left has been denying it ever since. Why? Self preservation.

If the things that the left wants to control – institutions and government policy – are not the most important factors in the world’s problems, then what role is there for the left?

What if it is things like the family, the culture and the traditions that make a more positive difference than the bright new government “solutions” that the left is constantly coming up with? What if seeking “the root causes of crime” is not nearly as effective as locking up criminals? The hard facts show that the murder rate was going down for decades under the old traditional practices so disdained by the left intelligentsia, before the bright new ideas of the left went into effect in the 1960s – after which crime and violence skyrocketed.

What happened when old-fashioned ideas about sex were replaced in the 1960s by the bright new ideas of the left that were introduced into the schools as “sex education” that was supposed to reduce teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases?

Both teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases had been going down for years. But that trend suddenly reversed in the 1960s and hit new highs.

One of the oldest and most dogmatic of the crusades of the left has been disarmament, both of individuals and of nations. Again, the focus of the left has been on the externals – the weapons in this case.

If weapons were the problem, then gun control laws at home and international disarmament agreements abroad might be the answer. But if evil people who care no more for laws or treaties than they do for other people’s lives are the problem, then disarmament means making decent, law-abiding people more vulnerable to evil people.

Since belief in disarmament has been a major feature of the left since the 18th century, in countries around the world, you might think that by now there would be lots of evidence to substantiate their beliefs.

But evidence on whether gun control laws actually reduce crime rates in general, or murder rates in particular, is seldom mentioned by gun control advocates. It is just assumed in passing that of course tighter gun control laws will reduce murders.

But the hard facts do not back up that assumption. That is why it is the critics of gun control who rely heavily on empirical evidence, as in books like More Guns, Less Crime by John Lott and Guns and Violence by Joyce Lee Malcolm.

National disarmament has an even worse record. Both Britain and America neglected their military forces between the two World Wars, while Germany and Japan armed to the teeth. Many British and American soldiers paid with their lives for their countries’ initially inadequate military equipment in World War II.

But what are mere facts compared to the heady vision of the left?

The political left has long claimed the role of protector of “the poor.” It is one of their central moral claims to political power. But how valid is this claim?

Leaders of the left in many countries have promoted policies that enable the poor to be more comfortable in their poverty. But that raises a fundamental question: Just who are “the poor”?

If you use a bureaucratic definition of poverty as including all individuals or families below some arbitrary income level set by the government, then it is easy to get the kinds of statistics about “the poor” that are thrown around in the media and in politics. But do those statistics have much relationship to reality?

“Poverty” once had some concrete meaning – not enough food to eat or not enough clothing or shelter to protect you from the elements, for example. Today it means whatever the government bureaucrats, who set up the statistical criteria, choose to make it mean. And they have every incentive to define poverty in a way that includes enough people to justify welfare state spending.

Most Americans with incomes below the official poverty level have air-conditioning, television, own a motor vehicle and, far from being hungry, are more likely than other Americans to be overweight. But an arbitrary definition of words and numbers gives them access to the taxpayers’ money.

This kind of “poverty” can easily become a way of life, not only for today’s “poor,” but for their children and grandchildren.

Even when they have the potential to become productive members of society, the loss of welfare state benefits if they try to do so is an implicit “tax” on what they would earn that often exceeds the explicit tax on a millionaire.

If increasing your income by $10,000 would cause you to lose $15,000 in government benefits, would you do it?

In short, the political left’s welfare state makes poverty more comfortable, while penalizing attempts to rise out of poverty. Unless we believe that some people are predestined to be poor, the left’s agenda is a disservice to them, as well as to society. The vast amounts of money wasted are by no means the worst of it.

If our goal is for people to get out of poverty, there are plenty of heartening examples of individuals and groups who have done that, in countries around the world.

Millions of “overseas Chinese” emigrated from China destitute and often illiterate in centuries past. Whether they settled in Southeast Asian countries or in the United States, they began at the bottom, taking hard, dirty and sometimes dangerous jobs.

Even though the overseas Chinese were usually paid little, they saved out of that little, and many eventually opened tiny businesses. By working long hours and living frugally, they were able to turn tiny businesses into larger and more prosperous businesses. Then they saw to it that their children got the education that they themselves often lacked.

By 1994, the 57 million overseas Chinese created as much wealth as the one billion people living in China.

Variations on this social pattern can be found in the histories of Jewish, Armenian, Lebanese and other emigrants who settled in many countries around the world – initially poor, but rising over the generations to prosperity. Seldom did they rely on government, and they usually avoided politics on their way up.

Such groups concentrated on developing what economists call “human capital” – their skills, talents, knowledge and self discipline. Their success has usually been based on that one four-letter word that the left seldom uses in polite society: “work.”

There are individuals in virtually every group who follow similar patterns to rise from poverty to prosperity. But how many such individuals there are in different groups makes a big difference for the prosperity or poverty of the groups as a whole.

The agenda of the left – promoting envy and a sense of grievance, while making loud demands for “rights” to what other people have produced – is a pattern that has been widespread in countries around the world.

This agenda has seldom lifted the poor out of poverty. But it has lifted the left to positions of power and self-aggrandizement, while they promote policies with socially counterproductive results.

The fundamental problem of the political left seems to be that the real world does not fit their preconceptions. Therefore they see the real world as what is wrong, and what needs to be changed, since apparently their preconceptions cannot be wrong.

A never-ending source of grievances for the left is the fact that some groups are “over-represented” in desirable occupations, institutions and income brackets, while other groups are “under-represented.”

From all the indignation and outrage about this expressed on the left, you might think that it was impossible that different groups are simply better at different things.

Yet runners from Kenya continue to win a disproportionate share of marathons in the United States, and children whose parents or grandparents came from India have won most of the American spelling bees in the past 15 years. And has anyone failed to notice that the leading professional basketball players have for years been black, in a country where most of the population is white?

Most of the leading photographic lenses in the world have – for generations – been designed by people who were either Japanese or German. Most of the leading diamond-cutters in the world have been either India’s Jains or Jews from Israel or elsewhere.

Not only people but things have been grossly unequal. More than two-thirds of all the tornadoes in the entire world occur in the middle of the United States. Asia has more than 70 mountain peaks that are higher than 20,000 feet and Africa has none. Is it news that a disproportionate share of all the oil in the world is in the Middle East?

Whole books could be filled with the unequal behavior or performances of people, or the unequal geographic settings in which whole races, nations and civilizations have developed. Yet the preconceptions of the political left march on undaunted, loudly proclaiming sinister reasons why outcomes are not equal within nations or between nations.

All this moral melodrama has served as a background for the political agenda of the left, which has claimed to be able to lift the poor out of poverty and in general make the world a better place. This claim has been made for centuries, and in countries around the world. And it has failed for centuries in countries around the world.

Some of the most sweeping and spectacular rhetoric of the left occurred in 18th century France, where the very concept of the left originated in the fact that people with certain views sat on the left side of the National Assembly.

The French Revolution was their chance to show what they could do when they got the power they sought. In contrast to what they promised – “liberty, equality, fraternity” – what they actually produced were food shortages, mob violence and dictatorial powers that included arbitrary executions, extending even to their own leaders, such as Robespierre, who died under the guillotine.

In the 20th century, the most sweeping vision of the left – Communism – spread over vast regions of the world and encompassed well over a billion human beings. Of these, millions died of starvation in the Soviet Union under Stalin and tens of millions in China under Mao.

Milder versions of socialism, with central planning of national economies, took root in India and in various European democracies.

If the preconceptions of the left were correct, central planning by educated elites with vast amounts of statistical data at their fingertips, expertise readily available, and backed by the power of government, should have been more successful than market economies where millions of individuals pursued their own individual interests willy-nilly.

But, by the end of the 20th century, even socialist and communist governments began abandoning central planning and allowing more market competition. Yet this quiet capitulation to inescapable realities did not end the noisy claims of the left.

In the United States, those claims and policies reached new heights, epitomized by government takeovers of whole sectors of the economy and unprecedented intrusions into the lives of Americans, of which ObamaCare has been only the most obvious example.

At the heart of the left’s vision of the world is the implicit assumption that high-minded third parties like themselves can make better decisions for other people than those people can make for themselves.

That arbitrary and unsubstantiated assumption underlies a wide spectrum of laws and policies over the years, ranging from urban renewal to ObamaCare.

One of the many international crusades by busybodies on the left is the drive to limit the hours of work by people in other countries – especially poorer countries – in businesses operated by multinational corporations. One international monitoring group has taken on the task of making sure that people in China do not work more than the legally prescribed 49 hours per week.

Why international monitoring groups, led by affluent Americans or Europeans, would imagine that they know what is best for people who are far poorer than they are, and with far fewer options, is one of the many mysteries of the busybody elite.

As someone who left home at the age of 17, with no high school diploma, no job experience and no skills, I spent several years learning the hard way what poverty is like. One of the happier times during those years was a brief period when I worked 60 hours a week – 40 hours delivering telegrams during the day and 20 hours working part-time in a machine shop at night.

Why was I happy? Because, before finding these jobs, I had spent weeks desperately looking for any job, while my meager savings dwindled down to literally my last dollar, before finally finding the part-time job at night in a machine shop.

I had to walk several miles from the rooming house where I lived in Harlem to the machine shop located just below the Brooklyn Bridge, in order to save that last dollar to buy bread until I got a payday.

When I then found a full-time job delivering telegrams during the day, the money from the two jobs combined was more than I had ever made before. I could pay the back rent I owed on my room and both eat and ride the subways back and forth to work.

I could even put aside some money for a rainy day. It was the closest thing to nirvana for me.

Thank heaven there were no busybodies to prevent me from working more hours than they thought I should.

There was a minimum wage law, but this was 1949 and the wages set by the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 had been rendered meaningless by years of inflation. In the absence of an effective minimum wage law, unemployment among black teenagers in the recession year of 1949 was a fraction of what it would be in even the most prosperous years of the 1960s and beyond.

As the morally anointed busybodies raised the minimum wage rate, beginning in the 1950s, black teenage unemployment skyrocketed. We have now become so used to tragically high rates of unemployment among this group that many people have no idea that things were not always like that, much less that policies of the busybody left had such catastrophic consequences.

I don’t know what I would have done if such busybody policies had been in effect back in 1949, and prevented me from finding a job before my last dollar ran out.

My personal experience is just one small example of what it is like when your options are very limited. The prosperous busybodies of the left are constantly promoting policies which reduce the existing options of poor people even more.

It would never occur to the busybodies that multinational corporations are expanding the options of the poor in third world countries, while busybody policies are contracting their options.

Wages paid by multinational corporations in poor countries are typically much higher than wages paid by local employers. Moreover, the experience that employees get working in modern companies make them more valuable workers and have led in China, for example, to wages rising by double-digit percentages annually.

Nothing is easier for people with degrees to imagine that they know better than the poor and uneducated. But, as someone once said, “A fool can put on his coat better than a wise man can put it on for him.”

The Best of Thomas Sowell


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