"There are 10^11 stars in the galaxy. That used to be a huge number. But it's only a hundred billion. It's less than the national deficit! We used to call them astronomical numbers. Now we should call them economical numbers." ~ Richard Feynman
The Worst Way to Do Anything
Exclusive to STR
June 25, 2007
"Good enough for government work." -- traditional
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What People Know
Coercive government always proves to be the worst way to do anything peaceful and civilized; the combination of coercion and top-down central planning ensures this. Furthermore, everyone knows that government is the worst way to do things, even though most people don't seem to realize that they know it.
You can prove to someone that he or she understands the superiority of non-government approaches with a single question:
"How often do you voluntarily send money (that is, non-tax money) to assist government programs?"
The answer, for nearly everyone, is "never." But ask whether the person voluntarily supports private, non-government efforts for provision of goods and services, or for charity and disaster relief, and the answer is very different.
For example, after hurricane Katrina, did you donate to FEMA? Did you donate to the Army Corps of Engineers? Did you send a check to any government agency involved in responding to the disaster?
If not, did you instead donate to the Red Cross, or to the Salvation Army, or to a fund set up by your church, or to any other non-government charity or relief organization? For many people, the answer here would be "yes."
When giving to charity, you are moved to donate money (or goods, or time and effort) because you have a healthy human desire to help others in their time of need. You donate specifically to a non-government effort because you want what you give to actually provide a benefit.
"People do what they believe," observes Sunny Randall, a character in Robert B. Parker's novel Spare Change. I think it's reasonable to infer, from the ratio of voluntary donations to private versus to government charity and relief efforts -- not to mention when voluntarily paying for other goods and services -- that people know perfectly well the superiority of non-government action. This superiority has nothing to do with government employees being inferior or corrupt (although some are), but instead results, inevitably, from the nature of coercively-funded government action versus the nature of voluntarily-funded efforts.
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Customer Un-satisfaction: Victimizing Those Being "Helped"
As you might expect, those closest to the actual provision of a government service are typically the ones most appalled at its quality. A perfect example is that public school teachers pay to send their own children to private schools at roughly twice the rate that other parents do. You can't really blame teachers for being desperate to get their own children out of government schools, because government schooling is a disaster, despite the vast public sums spent on it. Worse: government schooling is an expensive disaster that harms children. Government schooling isn't wonderful for the teachers themselves, either; a half-million give up on the profession every year, and scrambling to find, hire, and train replacements adds to the expense of the public school system.
Here is what government schools feel like to the victims, as described by former teacher Rachel Baxter: prison. Not every school is the same, but the writings and website of former three-time New York City Teacher of the Year John Taylor Gatto give enough detail about the history, motives, and effects of government schooling to make the case that coercive government schooling is a harm to children, not a benefit. (Gatto was also once NY state Teacher of the Year). Government schooling is essentially twelve long years of child abuse; it is -- as Gatto describes and provides references for -- a scheme designed to turn healthy, inquisitive, confident, free-minded children into pliant corporate drones, mindless consumers, and diminished, servile citizens who know their place: under the thumb of the power elite. Gatto's Against School: How Public Education Cripples Our Kids, and Why (Harper's Magazine, September 2003) is a good, brief summary of his indictment of the government school system.
Children have been reduced to shadows of their real selves in part by government schooling and the attitudes towards children that the system has encouraged -- so argues Robert Epstein in The Case Against Adolescence: Rediscovering the Adult in Every Teen. For an eye-opening interview with Epstein, see Trashing Teens at Psychology Today.
Good teachers can improve things somewhat even in a government school, but the coercive system itself works against a healthy and positive environment, which is why Gatto and so many other good teachers have abandoned the profession.
In vivid contrast, check out Summerhill School in England to see what school can be like (link is to a British government report on the school; see also Summerhill: A New View of Childhood by Alexander S. Neill and Albert Lamb). Few private schools emphasize freedom for children as Summerhill does, sadly enough (here's the school's own website). Sudbury Valley School and others on the Sudbury model are, like Summerhill, exceptions to the rule of coercion; Daniel Greenberg created Sudbury in 1968 as essentially a non-boarding-school version of Summerhill. Non-government schools typically provide far better environments than do government-run schools, but most still approach children with an authoritarian attitude. The difference between Summerhill or Sudbury versus most other schools is the difference between freedom and tyranny; I feel a sense of relief just thinking about the environment in a free community like Summerhill.
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Crushing Love and Freedom
Understanding the duality of love and freedom is even more important when dealing with children than with adults, for a lack of either love or freedom in childhood echoes throughout the child's later life, in turn causing at least some damage to the next generation. High levels of both love and freedom are needed for a healthy world. Freeing children from coercive schooling is absolutely critical if we are to seriously improve the world.
Coercion works against the creation of a healthy world because coercion is an affront to both love and freedom. This makes it impossible for coercive government generally to ever be a healthy approach to running society.
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Coercion Destroys Market Guidance and Incentives
It isn't just charity, disaster relief, and schooling that benefit from free human action versus coercive government funding and control. If a private entity of any type -- charity or business -- does a lousy job, people can stop supporting it. How obvious, yet how very important! Not every non-government entity is honest or efficient, but the voluntary character of the market creates a powerful, relentless form of natural selection, pruning away those businesses and charities that people will not voluntarily support while strengthening those that people do. Market forces exert a natural pull in the direction of customer satisfaction, just as the mass of the Earth exerts a gravitational pull on us and on the objects around us.
In stark contrast, when the government does a lousy job at something -- and when does it not? -- people are forced to continue supporting the government effort anyway: "pay or else" is the government approach, always and everywhere. Unlike market forces, which create an obvious mechanism pushing for customer satisfaction, government coercion (even if only for funding of a program) creates an equally obvious mechanism working against customer satisfaction. If Whole Foods or Apple Computer used coercive methods for funding -- if they took money from you by force, whether you liked their offerings and whether you even used them -- would those firms still work as hard to make their products and services as pleasing as they are now? No, of course not: the incentive for all that hard work and attention to detail would be gone.
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Coercion is a Crime
Furthermore, if Whole Foods or Apple used coercion to get their money, the principals at those firms would be arrested, tried, and imprisoned because coercion is a crime, in every sense of the term, including "legally."
Why, then, do we put up with coercion from government?
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Even Coercive-Socialists Know Better
Many celebrities are known for strong coercive-socialist leanings, but even these people understand the benefits and superiority of non-government efforts for improving the world. Susan Sarandon, for example, chose to feature a non-government microloan program when she appeared on Oprah Winfrey's show some time ago. Of the many rich and famous who fawn over Castro's Cuba , the number who have actually moved there to enjoy the benefits of the Cuban slave-state and military dictatorship is, to the best of my knowledge, "zero." When it comes to paying taxes to support "compassionate" government programs, celebrities sometimes become dramatically enlightened, albeit selectively. Bono, the rock star constantly lobbying for more government aid to the poor everywhere, recently moved much of his business empire to a lower-tax jurisdiction. As The Guardian put it:
"Irish politicians have expressed surprise at U2's decision to move part of its multi-million pound operation from Ireland to Amsterdam . The tax rate on royalty earnings in the Netherlands --where many of the Rolling Stones' assets are based--is only a few percent.
"U2's changeover may have been triggered by reforms announced last December by the Irish finance minister, Brian Cowen, who imposed a cap of 250,000EUR (168,000GBP) [about $335,000USD at this writing] on tax-free incomes for artists resident in the republic. Before the cap, the scheme attracted many famous names to Ireland . But the government came under pressure to curtail the incomes of those benefiting disproportionately from the scheme.
. . . "The Irish Labour party's finance spokeswoman, Joan Burton, said this week: 'Having listened to Bono on the necessity for the Irish government to give more money to Ireland Aid . . . I am surprised that U2 are not prepared to contribute to the exchequer on a fair basis along with the bulk of Irish taxpayers.'"
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Causing Great Harm While Claiming to Do Good
It is not merely that government efforts are sub-par and poor value for the money: Government efforts, as we have already seen, are actually harmful. I don't mean they are a little bit harmful: I mean that government efforts to help people are in many cases horrifyingly, staggeringly harmful. African economics expert James Shikwati put it succinctly in a 2005 interview with the magazine Spiegel:
SPIEGEL: Mr. Shikwati, the G8 summit at Gleneagles is about to beef up the development aid for Africa . . . .
Shikwati: . . . for God's sake, please just stop.
SPIEGEL: Stop? The industrialized nations of the West want to eliminate hunger and poverty.
Shikwati: Such intentions have been damaging our continent for the past 40 years. If the industrial nations really want to help the Africans, they should finally terminate this awful aid. The countries that have collected the most development aid are also the ones that are in the worst shape. Despite the billions that have poured in to Africa , the continent remains poor.
SPIEGEL: Do you have an explanation for this paradox?
Shikwati: Huge bureaucracies are financed (with the aid money), corruption and complacency are promoted, Africans are taught to be beggars and not to be independent. In addition, development aid weakens the local markets everywhere and dampens the spirit of entrepreneurship that we so desperately need. As absurd as it may sound: Development aid is one of the reasons for Africa 's problems. If the West were to cancel these payments, normal Africans wouldn't even notice. Only the functionaries would be hard hit.
-- From "For God's Sake, Please Stop the Aid!", July 4, 2005
So, nearly an entire continent has been wrecked by government aid; millions of Africans in a dozen or more nations have been harmed in this manner for decades. Money you could have spent on something useful was taken by your government and used to support corruption and to keep ordinary people poor overseas. Shikwati isn't the only observer to point out that aid to Africa has been damaging instead of merely useless. See, for example, Bono and Friends are Wrong on African Development Aid by Blake Lambert in the June 15, 2007 World Politics Review, which includes this exchange:
"'It [aid] doesn't benefit the poor,' he said. 'It benefits aid workers, international aid bureaucrats, local bureaucrats and local politicians.'
"When asked what westerners wanting to help Africa should do, Mwenda [Andrew Mwenda, a Ugandan journalist] advises people not to give money.
"Instead of foreign aid and debt cancellation, he insists the west should engage the continent in mutually beneficial investment and trade."
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Causing Great Harm While Claiming to Protect Us
Of course, some dangers are so severe we simply must have government protection from them. Right? Drugs, for instance -- or so we hear. Yet, Debra J. Saunders, in Romancing the Snow (San Francisco Chronicle, June 12, 2007) tells us -- in what could be the ten thousandth such story I have seen in the last 40 years -- that our efforts in the endless Drug War have not merely failed, but backfired, both here and overseas:
"After burning $4.7 billion [since 1999 for Plan Columbia, designed to make cocaine scarce and expensive in the U.S.], cocaine is plentiful and cheap in America . If there is a way to fight this front in the drug war, Plan Colombia is not the ticket.
"'Imagine Colombia as a failed state,' Santos argued. South America would tilt further left. Migrants would move further north.
"But that argument has nothing to do with the War on Drugs in America . It is an economic argument with national security overtones -- or a national security argument with economic overtones. It argues for aid to Colombia [oops! See Spiegel and World Politics Review articles excerpted above], not a failed drug policy that does not serve American families.
"'Can you tell me any other product that has gone down in price in the last few years?' Curtis asked -- and you can't include technological products that change. Think milk or bread or beef.
"Those consumer prices are not falling. It takes a Washington-born government program -- designed to drive up the price of cocaine -- to drive down the cost of cocaine. The one thing drug warriors never demand of an American anti-drug program is that it actually work." [Emphasis added]
For more on Plan Columbia -- and on the recently leaked plans for a "Plan Mexico " -- see The Annexation of Mexico by John Ross, Counterpunch, June 18, 2007
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Cost Overruns and What They Sometimes Buy
Another problem typical of government projects is the massive cost overrun. Any government project is likely to show this effect, but wars are particularly distressing examples. "In the days before the [ Iraq ] war almost five years ago, the Pentagon estimated that it would cost about $50 billion," reminds David Leonhardt of the NY Times in What $1.2 Trillion Can Buy. Some experts think the $1.2 trillion estimate from Leonhardt's story is actually low. How about $2 trillion? That estimate is from last year (2006) and the meter is still running.
$50 billion versus $2,000 billion. Now that's a cost overrun.
What have we bought with all that money? Thousands of dead American soldiers, many thousands more injured, 655,000 (and counting) dead Iraqis, cancer-causing depleted uranium poisoning (see also here and here) in Iraq (and DU particles are being spread around the planet on the winds), a ruined Iraqi infrastructure (which had already been wrecked in the first Gulf war and which a decade of sanctions kept in poor repair), millions of Iraqi refugees fleeing the mess we have made of their country, an increased threat of terrorism in America, widespread use of torture by our own government, a sharply lower opinion of America by people in other nations, and (on a separate invoice, for additional money) a police state here at home.
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So: government programs don't work well, they often achieve the opposite of their stated aims, they usually cost far more than predicted, they cost far more than non-government efforts that typically do work properly, they create great harm to people (and to entire nations and to the environment), they always involve coercion (at the very least by funding via taxation), and this coercion -- along with central planning by distant "authorities" -- ensures that government programs provide little or no customer satisfaction.
I know what you're thinking: "Is that really so bad?"
Of course not! And wait -- there's more!
For a limited time (meaning "forever"), we'll throw in the amazing power of our patented CorporateGovernment CorruptionSynergy, whereby the wealth-creating power of the market is molecularly bonded to the legal power to coerce others granted to government by itself. The result is a new alloy of incredible strength we call (well, not when others are around) "fascist oligarchy"*, which retains the appearance of a free society while funneling untold wealth into the hands of those who know what is really best for you! Yes, head to the voting booth and order some CorporateGovernment CorruptionSynergy for yourself today! Act now!
(. . . a moment, please, while I shut down the runaway sarcasm circuit. Ah, there: got it).
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Coming Soon: A Free and Compassionate World, or No World at All?
In all seriousness: Are there better ways to do things than by government force?
Are there better ways to promote love and freedom than by coercive funding and control?
Yes, always. By definition, coercion destroys freedom. Initiating coercion against others is not loving them, but instead controlling them.
Will humankind survive the combination of government coercion, widespread neurosis, and ever-more-powerful 21st Century technology?
Quite possibly not, as I have argued before in The Two Great Evils and the Hammer of Infinite Power.
Replacing tyranny and widespread neurosis with free societies and widespread emotional health is the most important task of the modern era. A critical element of that task is turning away, finally, from the evil and violence of coercive government. Coercive government is not only the worst way to do things: coercive government is incompatible with a healthy human future, and perhaps with any human future.
"Live free or die," indeed.
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Next week's column examines the phenomenon of the mutually parasitic corporate-government organism in more detail.
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* fas'cism n. 1. Often Fascism. a. A system of government marked by centralization of authority under a dictator, stringent socioeconomic controls, suppression of the opposition through terror and censorship, and typically a policy of belligerent nationalism and racism. b. A political philosophy or movement based on or advocating such a system of government. 2. Oppressive, dictatorial control.
ol'i'gar'chy n. 1. Government by a few, especially by a small faction of persons or families. b. Those making up such a government. 2. A state governed by a few persons.
~ The American Heritage Dictionary