Politics & Policy

Benign Neglect

Often the best way to "fix" a "problem"is to ignore it.

Calvin Coolidge, the second greatest Republican president of the 20th century, once said, “When you see ten troubles rolling down the road, if you don’t do anything, nine of them will roll into the ditch before they get to you.”

Now, that’s my kind of conservatism.

For a president of either party to say such a thing today — and mean it — is unthinkable. But the fact remains that often the best way to “fix” a “problem” is to ignore it. I know, I know, this sounds like I’m once again simply justifying my own sloth and villainy. After all, my oeuvre is overflowing with celebrations of lowbrow popular culture, various beverages not normally associated with higher-order cognition, and defenses of such things as sweatshops, police brutality, and moral hypocrisy.

Nonetheless, there’s a strong case to be made for the “don’t-just-do-something, stand-there” school.

I got to thinking about this yesterday while writing about global warming for my syndicated column (which, rumor has it, is still not in your local newspaper — but the Green Bay Press-Gazette just picked it up, so huzzah to them! Go Packers!).

See, the Earth is getting warmer and mankind may have something to do with it. Even Reason magazine’s Ronald Bailey — my rabbi on such things — concedes that the planet’s gotten warmer — by about a whopping .6 degrees Centigrade over the last century.

The question is, what do you do about it? And the answer, for now, is nothing. I don’t say nothing because it’s easier to do nothing. Or because the maniacal corporations put a chemical in Kentucky Fried Chicken that allows them to control our minds. Not “nothing” because global warming will kill animals that we want to use to upholster our SUVs. Not “nothing” because conservatives are greedy, short-sighted, nasty, smelly, dirty, icky, or suffer from a severe lack of bran. But, rather, “nothing” because it’s the right thing to do.

Global warming is a very slow process that we do not understand very well. It’s not entirely clear that it’s bad even if it’s happening, and it’s not clear that any of the proposed (and politically impossible) solutions out there would stop it. But it is clear that the proposed solutions — i.e. the Kyoto treaty — would slow down economic and technological development substantially.

I don’t want to plagiarize my other column, so I will avoid the space-travel analogies. Instead, imagine you were extremely concerned with deforestation in the 19th century. The tree-loss rate at the turn of the century was vastly steeper — by several orders of magnitude — than, say, the rate of increase in global warming today. And, unlike global warming, we can be sure that humans were responsible for chopping down all those trees.

Consider this nugget from Ronald Bailey’s essay in the current issue of Reason (not on the web yet): “Railroads, the 19th century’s ‘modern’ form of transportation, consumed nearly 25 percent of all the wood used in America, for both track ties and fuel.” Add to that the amount of clear-cutting to make way for pastures for horses and cattle, and the wood used in virtually all construction, and you can see how wood was the indispensable ingredient for all economic activity.

Now, a 21st-century liberal transported to the 19th century would pound the table for some sort of Kyoto Treaty to curb the use of trees, especially for choo-choos. He would also faint as his romantic vision of a car-free America ran into the olfactory nightmare that was a horse-powered one. (By 1900 New York City alone had about 120,000 horses, each producing about twenty pounds of manure and gallons of urine every day, clearly preferable to car exhaust, but that’s a different subject.)

Anyway, a Kyoto treaty would have hobbled the economic advancement of the United States like a fistful of camel laxatives in a marathon runner’s Gatorade.

Well, the inconvenient truth is that the economic advancement of the United States is precisely what saved our forests and why we have a lot more trees today than we did in the 1920s. Under any calculation, America would have destroyed more forests than a Kyoto-style tree-treaty would have saved — if we hadn’t advanced to the point where we could replace trees, horses, and railroads as the essential ingredients for transportation, housing, and industry. This lesson repeats itself throughout human history.

Take overpopulation. Paul Ehrlich, the author of the laughably wrong The Population Bomb is often hailed as one of the world’s most important and prescient scientists. The reality is that they should run a laugh track over pretty much everything he says.

For example, in 1970 he wrote in Ramparts that, “Some experts feel that food shortages will have escalated the present level of world hunger and starvation into famines of unbelievable proportions. Other experts, more optimistic, think the ultimate food-population collision will not occur until the decade of the 1980s.” In the Earth Day issue of The Progressive, Ehrlich guaranteed readers that in the 1980s, 4 billion people, including 65 million Americans, would perish in the “Great Die-Off.”

Well, overpopulation has rolled into that ditch Coolidge was talking about. Sure, some pointy-headed do-gooders and do-badders have done some things at the margins in terms of family planning, education, and forced abortions. But the fact of the matter is that prosperity, real and relative, has made people choose to have fewer children because children are no longer an economic resource. That’s why Europe’s population will continue to shrink for as far as the eye can see.

Or take child labor. Most lefties and your kid’s social-studies textbooks will tell you that child labor ended when progressives made it illegal. The truth is that child labor in America was almost gone when the government banned it. You can only make child labor illegal when enough parents are rich enough to no longer see the utility in putting the wee ones to work. That pattern is playing itself out across the globe today.

I know it offends some people, but economic advancement is just about the best catchall phrase for medical, technological, and scientific progress. Can you think of a period or place where, absent war, the GNP went up for a sustained period of time while the basic material stuff of life — food, clothing, shelter, medicine, video games, reclining seats with those mini-fridges in the side — didn’t improve, too?

Of course, economic advancement can’t answer the big moral questions but it can provide more and more people the personal freedom from want, pain, deprivation, and fear to ask such questions for themselves. Some on the Right and many on the Left are more troubled than I by this fact. But that’s a debate for a different day.

The thing I want to return to is this idea of doing nothing. Pin a list to the wall of the top 100 “big problems” and start throwing darts at it (better yet, pin the list to a picture of Paul Ehrlich and start throwing darts at it). Odds are you will hit something in desperate need of Coolidge-esque benign neglect.

This doesn’t mean that individuals and private groups shouldn’t do what they can to do good in the world as they see it. But it does mean that the government is usually too bone-headed, bureaucratic, slow, and short-sighted to do much to help solve most of the problems in the world. By the time the feds come up with a way to close the so-called (but largely mythological) “digital divide,” the PC will be something we mention in sentences alongside 8 Track Tapes and rotary phones.

Of course there’s room for regulation and real problem solving on the part of government. Most Americans favor mandatory ingredient labels on their food and independent safety standards for their cars and, personally, I think such stuff is fine so long as we recognize that even these reforms have costs. There are even a few potential big problems rolling toward us for which the government should be proactive — avoiding wars, fighting disease, replacing shabby, basic social services such as roads and bridges (yeah I know the private sector could do that, but it ain’t gonna happen), fixing Social Security, and preventing a Barbra Streisand comeback. But, you see, that’s why Coolidge said only nine out of ten problems will roll into the ditch without you doing anything.


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