L. Neil Smith's
THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 266, April 11, 2004
Taxation is the Root of All Evil
Orthodoxy: Why We Can't Solve Today's Problems
Exclusive to TLE
The United States is a complex nation and is becoming more so every day. We are facing problems that our forebears couldn't even conceive of, much less understand. Yet we are no better at solving problems than our ancestors, mainly because we're using the same tools and methods they found lacking.
But, you say, we have computers and communications and systems "designed" to help us, why aren't they working?
There is an adage in data processing; "Garbage in, Garbage out!" which essentially means that the results you get from a process can be no better than the information you feed in. True enough, but it conveniently ignores the program, the method of defining and analyzing the data. Programs are the tools in a data processing system, the human mind is the tool of society. How we think is the reason why we aren't getting anywhere with our vexing problems.
Our increasingly bureaucratized system is a guarantee that practical, workable solutions will almost never be found, because it always looks back toward those processes that have been devised and nurtured over the centuries. They are asked to address situations they weren't designed for, or have already tried unsuccessfully to solve.
Consider the following:
Education Study after study, by government and the private sector, show a decline in the capability of the American student, a decreasing ability to compete with students in other countries, some going so far as to accuse the system of producing "functional illiterates." Conventional wisdom points to money as the culprit, "Give us enough money and all will be well, cry the teachers unions, administrators and bureaucrats. Give us laws to keep kids in school regardless of the problems they cause. Tighten the requirements for being a teacher and protect us from the pressures of the outside world."
If money was the sole criterion, states with large per pupil expenditures would turn out significantly better graduates. If they do, where is the proof? We commission architects to design aesthetically pleasing school buildings. Are students from pretty schools superior to those from seedier ones?
If a person doesn't want to learn, should he be kept in school, taking up space and disturbing those who do? Is the oft-trumpeted "class-size" really an important factor in education or is it just a ploy to make life easier on teachers?
Does an advanced degree guarantee superior teaching ability? Is an academic background better preparation for teaching than a practical one? The truth is that education is one of the strongest, most deeply entrenched bureaucracies we have and bureaucrats always look inside their ranks for solutions, even when their record of achievement is dismal.
Drugs Supposedly the greatest of all our social ills. The drum-beat of rhetoric speaks of the danger to our children, the rampant crime and the economic losses caused by "mind-altering substances." The solutions run from severe (even capitol) punishment, to massive spending on "interdiction", to increasing law enforcement dollars, to stopping the sale of cigarette papers, to "just saying NO!" With all the bombast and posturing, the problem keeps getting worse, illicit substance abuse continues to grow.
How can we solve a problem that we can't even define? One school of thought equates all mind-altering substances, from caffeine to cannabis to heroin, another school differentiates among them. Equally zealous forces tell us we must concentrate on the grower or the exporting nation or the smugglers or the wholesalers or the retailers or the users or even the bankers accused of laundering the profits. There are appeals to support actions against foreign governments, begging for understanding, pleading for treatment programs or even recommending drug legalization. We don't even know how drugs work, why a person becomes addicted or how to treat them except for deprivation or substitution. Morality aside, what is wrong with a person introducing any substance he desires into his own body, as long as it affects no one else? Is it the use of these substances or the crime associated with them that is the real problem? Why did many veterans from Vietnam who were heroin addicts overseas not continue their drug abuse once they came home? Logically, how can you ban a substance like marijuana that can be grown in every state in the Union and consumed without special processing? Nineteen billion dollars per year in direct spending by the federal government alone, an estimated seventy percent of every law enforcement dollar, and the problem still worsens.
Crime Leaving aside the drug problem we still have a significant amount of crime in this country. In addition to the tried and true crimes of passion and avarice we can add computer crime, "white-collar" crime, medical malpractice, even scientific crimes. And don't forget the panoply of civil crimes. Sometimes it seems that half the population is suing the other half. Perhaps we have more crime because we have more laws to violate. One of the most popular sayings in our vocabulary is "There oughtta be a Law!", and in too many cases there are politicians ready and willing to provide one. The only thing less conducive to true justice is the huge number of lawyers that are lying in wait for any opportunity to get into court and make a buck.
We consider ourselves to be a civilized nation, yet there are few nations that jail more of their own people. Our prisons are so overcrowded that violent felons are released to provide space for the waves of new inmates coming out of the courts. With all of this, is the best solution we can come up with to build more prisons, more courtrooms, to hire more cops? Will we continue until there are as many people in jail as out?
Defense The political face of the world has changed radically in the past decade and a half, but the best our leaders can do is attempt to revise and rehash the same tired strategic philosophy that brought us the Cold War.
The events of September 11, 2001 have been a splash of ice-water in the face of American complacency but we haven't seen any fundamental changes in the way government works. The radical changes proposed in the shadow of the smoke plumes of the World Trade Center are fading in the face of politicians and bureaucrats determined to preserve their cushy jobs.
Despite the shifting of national security deck chairs, the U.S. security structure is still the same insular hodge-podge of political self-interest as before and the vaunted Homeland Defense Commissariat seems more about removing the rights of American citizens than in ferreting out international bad guys.
Expensive new strategic weapons are being developed and built, whether they are wanted or not. Senior bureaucratic, non-combat officers are retained by the military, while younger combat-trained leaders are booted out. Most nations don't depend on a large, combat ready military force, but on reserves that can be called up quickly to fill out regular, combat capable cadres. Of course, most nations aren't insistent on running the World. Most nations don't see themselves as the saviors of the planet. Most nations retain their forces within their own borders except in an emergency. Most nations are tickled to have someone else provide their defense dollars. Unfortunately, we are not most nations
There is no longer a credible strategic intercontinental missile threat. The alliances that fostered the Cold War are dead. Modern communications have rendered the kind of aggression seen in the Third Reich or the Soviet Union of Josef Stalin impossible to maintain over time. The international wars of the future will be more like the Israeli Six-Day War, the Falklands, Kuwait or Afghanistan rather than World War II. The really nasty fighting will be in internal wars. Public opinion will not allow the protracted Vietnam variety of war in the future. Why aren't we addressing this reality instead of spending billions to build "stealthy" aircraft and ships that are obsolete on the day they're commissioned?
These problems and the others facing us can't be solved with outdated methods. We will need unorthodox thinkers to analyze the perplexities of the Twenty-first century and pose viable solutions as well as a populace enlightened enough to accept and implement them. Concentration on the past will not help us overcome the difficulties of the future.
Will we get the unconventional thinkers that the future demands? Probably not. They have to wend their way through a briar-patch of bureaucracy and self-interested political conservatism before their voices can be heard, and those in the system aren't going to do anything to help. One reason that we have seen so few Einstein's is that his kind of thinking opposed orthodox institutions and those institutions are first and foremost in the self-preservation business. Before we can have unorthodox problem solvers, we have to bring down this kind of self interest. Our first and greatest problem is the one that is the least likely to be solved.
And don't forget America's prevalent method of education. The government schools have a goal of mediocrity, the teacher unions and the education bureaucrats are making sure they succeed. Any hint that merit ought to be considered in pay or promotion is greeted with howls of anger. The latest foolishness is that there will no longer be "valedictorians" in some graduating classes because granting that status to superior students might make others "feel bad." If teachers won't compete to be the best and students can't compete to be the best, how can schools produce students that are the best possible thinkers?
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