• 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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