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Being and Nothingness
A long, weird column.


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Jonah Goldberg

Because today’s column is very long, and a bit weird, I’m running the announcements up top.

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First of all, t he recent NRO poll on Bush’s stem cell decision had some interesting results. Out of 8,000 votes cast, 75% considered Bush’s decision an acceptable compromise. A quarter considered it an immoral surrender.

Second, thanks to everyone who sent me kind words about my speech to the Young America’s Foundation, which was rebroadcast on C-SPAN this weekend. As I warned, it was a bit of a stream-of-consciousness deal. But many of you seemed to like it anyway. About my “ums.” I must confess that they do sound, um, awful. But I’m, um, more than a little disappointed that nobody noticed that they were intentional. If you speed up the tape it becomes clear that they were actually Morse Code for “torture.” Actually, I was fairly horrified by the umming, which is not my normal way of talking. So, I have attached electrodes to my Dingell-Norwood which will shock me every time I issue the “um” sound (Zarpzzzzzznat! Owww!).

On Wednesday, for those of you in Washington, I will be on a panel to discuss the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The panel is from 12:00 PM to 1:30 PM at the Heritage Foundation. It’s open to the public, so come on down. But I have no further info, so please get in touch with them.

Okay, let’s get to it. This weekend I received the “Outstanding Electronic Journalist of the Year” award from the International Platform Association. Past recipients include a lot of fancy-pants TV types. It was a strange choice to pick me — and an even stranger evening, which I’ll tell you all about another time. But for now, I thought it might make sense to run my speech as my column. It’s the first one I’ve written out in a very long time, and as this is my last Monday in Washington as an unmarried man, I got a lot to do.

This is “as prepared,” not “as delivered.” It’s long, but it pretty much lays out my general approach to politics (my apologies to people I would source in a written article).

When I saw the list of previous recipients, I was pretty sure you picked the wrong guy. After all, Ted Turner, Barbara Walters, Harry Reasoner, and Sam Donaldson are hardly golfing buddies of mine. And this isn’t just because I can’t golf.

Anyway, I am sure that when previous recipients of the Lowell Thomas Award (as well as other honorees) have come up to this august and venerable podium, they have rightly called your attention to some of the great problems of the day. Indeed, this organization finds its roots in the Lincoln-Douglas debates, which were, if nothing else, an attempt to address the greatest internal challenge this country has ever faced — and, God willing, ever will.

But as I am the first web-based journalist — let alone the first journalist not to own a villa of some sort, or to have important hair — to win this award, I’d like to talk to you for just a few minutes tonight about something that may well be another first for you. I’d like to talk to you about the importance of doing nothing. Not in your personal or professional life. If you do nothing in these areas, you may very well end up on the path that I am on. I have gained so much weight as a work-at-home “e-journalist,” smaller pundits have started to orbit around me.

No, I want to talk to you about the importance of doing nothing as a nation, as a people.

Now, sure, I know others have warned you about the need for campaign finance “reform,” or the dangers of using cell phones in cars — or the threat to the social fabric of handguns, internet pornography, or the inaccurate strike zone; about how each of these things require a national call to action.

But that, in a sense, is the point.

There are huge lobbying organizations which fight for the environment, minorities, health care, tax breaks, tax hikes, tax amnesties, and recovering tax-a-holics. There are even groups devoted to protecting the Georgian peanut, yogurt in Vermont, and tricolor basset hounds everywhere.

And I come to you tonight to make a small case for the great cause of doing nothing.

Calvin Coolidge, one of the three greatest presidents of the 20th century, is a hero of mine. He was the last president to truly understand the importance of doing nothing. In a press conference in 1929, he was asked what the most important achievement of his administration was. He pushed himself back from his chair. Thought deeply for a moment. And declared: “I think it would have to be, minding our own business.”

Coolidge meant it. “Silent Cal” was famous for minding his own business. There’s the famous story of the lady who sat down next to him at a dinner party and said, “I bet a friend I can make you say more than three words to me.”
Silent Cal turned to her and said, “You lose.”

Regardless, Coolidge wasn’t simply irascible. He was a principled conservative, whose actions are well supported in the writings of such philosophers as Edmund Burke, Friedrich Hayek, and Michael Oakeshott. When Coolidge died, H.L. Mencken wrote, “There were no thrills while he reigned, but neither were there any headaches… he was not a nuisance.” That is my kind of president.

The central insight of these timeless thinkers was a simple one: Good governments are not defined by what they do, but by what they choose not to do.

The United States is not special or unique because of its social welfare programs, its health care, or its good roads. If these were the measures of a great nation, we would take a backseat to Belgium, Switzerland, and even France. [Insert relevant French jokes here.]

No, Ronald Reagan referred to the United States as a shining city on a hill — because America chooses to leave it up to the people to solve many of life’s greatest challenges. Indeed, the importance of doing nothing is encoded in the founding documents of this nation. The bill of rights is framed in the negative for a reason. Congress shall pass no law abridging your freedom of speech, religion etc. etc. The Declaration of Independence refers to the “pursuit of happiness” — which puts the onus not on the government to provide happiness, but on the individual to go out and get it for himself. All that is required of the government is to get out of the way.

Seriously, think about it: The greatest villains of the last century were nations whose governments tried to solve too many problems, not too few.

The Soviet constitution “guaranteed” all sorts of positive rights — health care, education, food, shelter, shopping carts without wobbly wheels — but could provide none of them. And the response was disastrous. As the playwright and poet Bertolt Brecht observed: In Communist countries, when the people were against the government, the government changed the people.

Getting back to Coolidge, Silent Cal summed up his philosophy succinctly: “When you see ten problems rolling down the road, if you don’t do anything, nine of them will roll into a ditch before they get to you.”

Here are a few instances where doing nothing is better than doing something.

Global Warming & the Environment. We should all recall that in the 1970s, the United States was terrified of a new Ice Age heralded by scientists and newsmagazines. If the United States had acted on the advice of enlightened and respected experts in, say, 1977, we would have deliberately poured billions of tons of greenhouse gases into the air in the hope that maybe, just maybe, we could make the planet a bit warmer in time to avert snowmen in Miami Beach. And there’s no doubt the Ted Kennedys of the world would have advocated steep investments in igloos, mittens, and mucklucks for the inner-city poor.

Today, our fears have reversed. Scientists today are even more confident that the world is getting too warm. Without getting into a huge argument about some very technical data, let me just say it is pretty clear the world is getting warmer; whether it’s getting “too warm” is a different question entirely. After all, scientists confirm that warmer temperatures — about 1 degree fahrenheit over the last century — lend to higher crop yields, faster growing forests, and less brutal winters.

But just as too many skeptics are too willing to say “it’s not happening” about the “problem” of global warming, too many Chicken Little environmentalists are just as unwilling to have an open mind about the solution. And the solution, according to many economists and scientists is… to do nothing.

It is a simple fact that rich economies are better at protecting their environments than poor ones. The United States and the wealthy European nations are cleaner than anybody else. We can afford to protect species, habitat, and air. In the U.S., we now have more forests today than we did in 1920. And our water, our food, our cities are all vastly cleaner today than they have been in decades. In 1900, New York City alone had about 120,000 horses, each producing about twenty pounds of manure and gallons of urine every day — so clearly preferable to car exhaust. In London, air pollution was at its worst in 1890. Today it is cleaner than it has been since 1585.

Even the most drastic proposals to cut greenhouse emissions would have only marginal effects on global warming. The Kyoto Treaty, according to one of the U.N. Climate Change Panel’s lead scientists, would only put off the expected rise in temperatures by 6 years over the course of a century. In effect, without Kyoto it will get a bit warmer in 2094 rather than in 2100. But the costs — oh dear Lord, the costs. A reasonable estimate is that implementing the Kyoto treaty would cost the United States a trillion dollars. That’s vastly more expensive — by several orders of magnitude — than it would cost to simply deal with the problems, if there are any, as we go.

But more importantly, throwing a wet blanket on economic growth keeps poor countries poorer longer, which means they will abuse their environments longer. Retarding economic growth also means science and technology will grow more slowly — and those are precisely where the cures to our environmental problems lie.

Imagine you wanted to halt the very serious problem of American deforestation in 1890. You would cut the number of trees available for fuel and construction. You would curb the building of train tracks — the railroads used up one quarter of the wood at the end of the 19th century. In short, you would have darn near frozen the economy at a time when it consumed wood, rather than race through the period as quickly as possible to the point where wood was no longer as vital.

Just one other environmental example: Population growth. Noted experts who have almost never been right, like Paul Ehrlich and Jeremy Rifkin, have predicted that overpopulation will destroy the planet. In 1970, Ehrlich predicted that the United States alone would lose 65 million people during the 1980s, as part of the worldwide “Great Die-Off.” The truth is that there is more food available and consumed by more people today than there has ever been — despite our larger population. In 1949, the percent of people starving in the world was 45%; today, it is 18%. By the end of this decade it will be 12%, and by 2030 it will be a mere 6%.

And again, it turns out that rich countries have no overpopulation problems. In fact, most of the nations of Europe are quite literally imploding, because well-educated, wealthy women cannot be encouraged to have enough kids to maintain their populations. Without immigration, countries like Italy, Germany, France, etc., will have only a fraction of the populations they have today. Look at it this way: Imagine you want to send a manned rocket to the nearest star system. The quickest way to do it would be to do nothing for a couple hundred years. With our current technology, it would take us hundreds upon hundreds of years to get to, say, Alpha Centauri. But in a couple of centuries, who knows? We may be able to beam right over. So an astronaut leaving today would arrive to find, at best, his great-great-great grandkids. At worst, he’d find a lot of talking apes.

Government & Law: But there’s an even more obvious reason for doing nothing. When we do something, we usually get it wrong or do it too late.

In his brilliant book, What It Means to Be a Libertarian, Charles Murray discusses at length how many of our “progressive” laws were only passed after the “problem” had almost disappeared. For example, we only passed child labor laws when child labor was all but gone in the United States. When you get rich enough, you send your kids to school and outlaw child labor. This is a lesson we should keep in mind as we denounce Third World countries for allowing children to be a help to their families.

But even when we pass laws “in time,” we get it wrong. Pointy heads call it the “law of unintended consequences.” But P.J. O’Rourke may have been just as correct when he said, “Giving money and power to government is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys.”

Some small examples:

  • Kip Viscusi, a professor of law and economics at Harvard, has shown that child-proof caps caused more deaths than they saved. And I’m not talking about trying to get the aspirin bottle open when you’re dying from a hangover. Because they were “child-proof,” parents became overconfident and left bottles out more often — including medicines and poisons without safety caps.
  • Just this month, we’ve learned that even as children’s bicycle use has gone down over the last decade, and helmet usage has gone up, child bicycle accidents have increased.
  • Similarly, experts are noting that, even though bike riding has declined and helmet usage has risen, there are more serious bicycle accidents in America today than there were a decade ago.
  • Public housing. In the 1950s and 1960s, high-rises were all the rage. “Why shouldn’t poor people have them too?” asked well-meaning social planners. So they built these monstrous housing projects in poor neighborhoods — often using the same contractors and architects who built prisons, by the way. The only problem is that the social plannees wouldn’t do what the social planners wanted them to do. Working people left public housing the moment they could afford to. This left only the non-working poor, and the very old, to live there. Poor kids from broken homes, living in a giant, unpoliceable cement hive with frail old folks collecting Social Security checks: You couldn’t have designed a theme park of crime and hopelessness better. For the last ten years, city governments have been literally blowing these places up.
  • Title IX: My own fiancée has just finished writing a book detailing how an unnoticed item in a 1972 bill on gender equity ended up destroying many men’s sports teams around the country.

The list is actually endless. Prohibition — everyone agreed — would end the consumption of alcohol and the crimes booze contributed to. (Of course, Al Capone had a different idea.) California legislators were unanimous in believing their version of deregulation would lead to lower energy prices. The Supreme Court was unanimous in its certainty that the President of the United States wouldn’t be distracted by a civil lawsuit by a woman named Paula Jones.

Don’t get me wrong. I think Bill Clinton deserves to spend eternity in hell with the cast of Cats and Michael Flatly, the lord of the dance.

Now, I am not here to tell you the government should never ever do anything, ever. What I am here to say is that good intentions aren’t good enough. Robert Heinlein put it a bit more starkly than I would: “Goodness without wisdom always accomplishes evil.”

When Hillary Clinton ran for Senate, she won by being more “concerned” about “the issues” than her opponent — you know, whats-his-name. Concern can be great, but without the right policies, it’s useless. Who do you want to fly your plane? The person most concerned with not crashing — or the person who actually knows how to fly the plane?

I am trying to make the case that, as Russell Baker once put it: “A solved problem creates two new problems, and the best prescription for happy living is not to solve any more problems than you have to.” This can be summed up by the famed conservative formulation, when change is not necessary, it is necessary not to change. An activist may call it procrastination. I call it creative delay.

So if Calvin Coolidge was right when he said that nine out of ten problems will eventually roll into a ditch before they reach you, you might wonder: How do we tell when that one problem in ten is serious enough that we should do something?

Well, wisdom is important. We need to know that a problem doesn’t just “seem” bad, it must be bad. I think the best candidate today is genetics — even though I think it’s too soon to tell. Genetic research — as this week’s decision on stem cells highlights — is the first truly new thing under the sun for a long time. But even so, this too is a problem that can roll for awhile more before it hits us, or rolls into a ditch. I say, wait and see. When it’s a real problem it will emerge as one, and we will know it.

Indeed, I have a theory. I believe there’s an order to the universe. That’s why most problems get solved by the people closest to them. The closer you are, the better your information is — and, conversely, the farther away you are, the worse your info will be. But sometimes, as was the case with slavery (which was obvious in the Lincoln-Douglas debates which helped launch this group), some problems are so big, so obvious, that we have no choice but to deal with them as a nation.

In closing, let me provide an odd metaphor — in keeping with my belief in a universal order about such things — that has stuck with me ever since I read about it in the New York Times over a decade ago.

Fourteen years ago, scientists at Carnegie Mellon University finally solved a millennia-old mystery: Why do Brazil nuts rise to the top of a jar of nuts? (If you’ve ever noticed, when you open a jar of mixed nuts you’ll see that the Brazil nuts are at the top of the jar while the humble hazelnut, the plucky peanut, and even the mouth-watering macadamia are on the bottom.)

Of course, the mystery existed long before people bought nuts in a jar. Farmers often marveled how large, heavy rocks seemed to defy gravity and rise to the top of their fields. Or — to choose an example closer to home — have you ever noticed that when you open a box of cornflakes, the largest flakes are at the top of the box, but after one or two bowls’ worth you get nothing but the flaky junk? It’s a universal rule.

Well, it took thousands of years to prove why this happens, and the proof came in the Physical Review of Letters, right before an article entitled “Electromagnetic Radiation From Superconducting Cosmic Strings.” It turns out that in the natural order of things, the ground shifts, the earth moves, tectonic plates slide this way and that. This movement over time causes openings in the ground. The smaller rocks are more likely to fall into a small opening before the small opening has a chance to get bigger — let alone big enough to swallow a bigger rock. Just as water seeks its own level, so the smaller stones — or nuts or cornflakes — would fall beneath the larger ones. Over time, this would push the larger rocks to the top of a field.

Eventually — even though the rocks could weigh tons, and pebbles weigh ounces — the biggest stones will rise to the top of the field, and eventually crack the farmer’s plow.

I may not be able to tell you which problem, out of the ten rolling toward us, is the one we’ll have to deal with. But I believe that God made the world in a certain way, and that — like the farmer with his plow — if we pay close enough attention, the biggest issues will rise up to greet us. And I am more than confident we’ll be able to take care of them.

In the meantime, don’t just do something. Sit there.



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