According to New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman in his mega-best-selling book Hot, Flat, and Crowded, China banned plastic bags a few years ago. “Bam! Just like that — 1.3 billion people, theoretically, will stop using thin plastic bags,” he gushed. “Millions of barrels of petroleum will be saved, and mountains of garbage avoided.”
China’s got us beat, suggests Friedman, because its leaders aren’t hung up on democracy, checks and balances, or any of the other dusty old impediments found in the American system. Friedman has proclaimed his envy for China’s authoritarian system countless times. It’s why he titled one of the chapters in his book “China for a Day.” The idea — he calls it his “fantasy” — is that if we could just be China for a day, the experts could impose by diktat what they cannot win through democratic debate.
If only the Founding Fathers had included an annual “Tyranny Day” in the Constitution. Every 364 days America could debate and scheme, pitting faction against faction, government branch against government branch, and on the 365th day the Supreme Soviet of the United States could simply “do things that are tough” and shove ten pounds of policy awesomeness into democracy’s five-pound bag.
Now, just for the record, China hasn’t banned plastic bags. Just ask anybody who’s been to China recently. But what a strange thing to sell your soul for. What was it Thomas More said — “It profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world . . . but to ban plastic bags”?
Now, I bring all of this up for a couple reasons. The first is that I am mildly obsessed with Tom Friedman. He’s easily one of the most influential columnists in America, and he routinely and blithely expresses his envy for a barbaric police state that has killed tens of millions of its own people. I think pointing that out is worth a little repetition.
But it’s also worth noting that Friedman is hardly alone. He may stretch his argument to the point of parody, but he shares a widespread view that the “experts” have all the answers and the “system” is holding them back.
Such arguments are as old as they are dangerous. And they are arrogant beyond description. People like Friedman automatically assume that their preferred policies are so obviously right, so objectively enlightened, that there’s no need to debate them or vote on them.
Such arguments are usually deployed to avoid valid criticisms, not because there are none. Indeed, the Obama White House virtually lives by such claims. All of the experts agreed that their stimulus would work, that Obama’s version of health-care reform was both necessary and popular, and that weaning the U.S. from fossil fuels would create “green jobs.” The evidence on all of these fronts is mixed or weak, yet the president constantly insists that he doesn’t want to hear from people who disagree with him on these issues because all the facts are in.