L. Neil Smith's
THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 340, October 9, 2005
Tenth Anniversary Edition, Part 2
Special to TLE
Last week, I made a decision. I based it on fact and logic. It was, in fact, the right decision. But as it turned out, it wasn't the best decision. I spent the entire week regretting what I'd done and working to reverse it. Fortunately, it was a decision the effects of which could be reversed. Oh, it wasn't easy (which might be a good thing since the harder I had to work, the deeper the lesson sunk in), but it got done in the end.
I tell you this not to give the impression that I rarely make mistakes (even my own mother knows better than that), but rather to illustrate the fact that even decisions made for the right reasons and with the best motivations in the world still might not represent good choices.
What makes many bad decisions palatable at all is that those making them often realize sooner or later that they could have done a better job. If they're at all honest with themselves, they'll then work to change what they've done. This methodology only works, however, when the decision makers can admit they're in error which usually entails them having good intentions in the first place. But those good intentions alone aren't enough; the mistake must also be confessed for any reversal to take place.
Consider for example the firearms laws in Washington DC. While there are doubtless some politicians there who maintain that no one be permitted the means to self defense purely to acquire and assert their own power, I'd be willing to bet that the majority who favor such stringent gun control actually think they're doing the right thing. Their reasons are unassailable: They want to protect citizens, particularly children. Their methodology, however, will only work in a fantasy land where criminals obey laws. Since there is no such place, gun control in Washington (as well as New York City and Chicago) has succeeded only in disarming the law abiding and creating a haven for armed bad guys.
The firearms laws in Washington (and anywhere else) that are causing the problem could be repealed tomorrow. But for that to happen, those who consistently vote for even more draconian gun control are going to have to admit that what they're doing isn't working, and that it never will. Unfortunately, instead of taking a look at the facts, their good intentions often override all else with thoughts of still more laws insteadwhich only stimulates a freedom-stealing monster that feeds on itself when those laws don't work any better than the existing laws do.
Franklin D. Roosevelt (who, for the record, is the single human being I believe most responsible for the worst governmental and societal problems we have today) almost certainly had good intentions when he implemented Social Security and the welfare system as we know it. He wanted to honor dead or debilitated soldiers' sacrifices by offering pensions of sorts to their widows and children. Instead, an ever-expanding behemoth has become a top-heavy pyramid scheme threatening to topple altogether unless ever larger pillars of tax dollars are used to prop it up. He wanted to ensure that men could find jobs to feed starving families or, if no jobs could be found, could at least get a few dollars from the government to tide their families over. Instead, we've now seen government employment bloat beyond recognition or any remote semblance of efficiency, and whole generations of Americans raised in an atmosphere and an attitude of absolute entitlement.
Neither Social Security nor welfare as we know it could simply cease to exist tomorrow without grave repercussions for dependents. But the failure of many politicians to acknowledge that, despite worthy goals, the programs aren't working and never will is preventing even an attempt at reform or realistic change. And without change, still more people become dependent on government largesse which means any change is becoming progressively more difficult. Compounding the problem is the fact that virtually all of those who benefit from the taxes paid primarily by others are eligible to vote. As such, even those politicians who might admit privately that there's a problem won't publicly offer criticism or acknowledge the error of their ways when so many potential votes are at risk as a result.
I've made clear in the past that I place a good deal of blame for the tragic deaths (and even many of the damages ) in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina directly at the feet of New Orleans' Mayor Ray Nagin and Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco. But however ill-advised their decisions proved to be, I don't for a minute think that either of them intended to wreak as much havoc among city residents as possible.
Nagin was apparently possessed of some sort of a Pollyanna outlook that permitted him to assume the best even when the worst was clearly delineated on weather maps. When the time came to make a decision, he hesitated because he didn't want to cause any disruption; by the time he finally did decide, it was too late to employ much of even the insufficient disaster plan that was allegedly in place. Blanco, meanwhile, didn't want to let the federal government usurp her authority unless it was absolutely necessary (never mind the fact that the state was in no way prepared to offer immediate or comprehensive assistance to those affected). Given how federal authorities all too often run roughshod over state and local agents, her reluctance is understandable if not all that bright under the circumstances.
Meanwhile, no matter what Blanco or Nagin did or didn't do, there was a host of citizenry in New Orleans who, rather than making a decision for themselves, sat back and waited for the government to take care of them. That decision isn't quite as stupid as it sounds seeing as how government had taken care of them in the past and, along with that care, had willingly taken a good deal of the "burden" of self-responsibility from them. The motivations of government at higher levels almost certainly involve some power (dependence offers plenty of authority to those on whom the dependents are dependent), but the motivations of the ordinary citizens involved are plain and understandable if not commendable: it's easier to let somebody else do all the work.
Even terrorists who murder and maim innocents may have motivations we can appreciate if not condone. They want to be left alone by the rest of the world; they want to convert the "infidel" to the one "true" faith; they want their country back. Obviously, terrorist attacks aren't the way to do that. In fact, terrorist attacks have ensured the rest of the world won't leave them alone, have exposed millions of people to Islam in a very unflattering way, and have resulted in the invasions of Muslim countries by non-Muslim military forces. But the terror groups must acknowledge to themselves that their technique is seriously flawed before they'll admit it to the rest of the world. Unfortunately, like far too many less deadly but just as mistaken folks, they're not inclined to see their mistakes.
In the war on terror, invasions into Afghanistan and Iraq went far beyond merely capturing and putting on trial some known terrorists or terrorist sympathizers. It seems to me that this isin some measure, at leastthe fault of those who jumped in to action before considering any concrete plans for jumping back out again. Whatever the original plan, we're now ensconced in what is essentially a long term occupation of Iraq. Insurgents are fighting for sovereignty and freedom there, and even though their notion of "freedom" almost certainly is no such thing, they're gaining some sympathy. With their attacks, however, they're ensuring the long term occupation lasts even longer. Meanwhile, by essentially forcing democracy down the throats of people who have little experience with it and that don't really want it, Americans aren't looking like they're making the best of decision, either.
The Bush administration says it merely wants an end to terror and freedom for all peoples. Try to argue against that, and you can't. Such goals are just about a high-minded as they come. But the fact that the goals are such good ones shouldn't be used to justify any and every means to attain them! No matter the intent, aren't there lines we cannot cross if we intend to avoid some nasty unintended consequences? Aren't there risks we must be willing to take if we wish to remain free even as we fight for freedom? Mistakes, of course, have already been made; more will be made. And however they happen, whether through a lack of foresight or a lack of good sense, such mistakes are all too often clothed in the glory of good intentions. Perhaps that's why so many mistake the road to heaven for the road that actually leads somewhere else...
Whether we like to admit it or not, decisions have consequences. Some are good, some are not so good. And some, both good and bad, are entirely unintended. That's why, when we make decisionswith the exception, obviously, of emergency on-the-spot choiceswe've got to consider them from every angle. Good and bad outcomes are often obvious; unintended consequences are often not. If our examination shows something we don't like, or leads us to believe unintended consequences of the not-so-good variety could result, we might leave well enough alone until we consider other options.
No matter what our motivation or our careful consideration of potential results, we have also got to be prepared for the bad thing we didn't see in advance to happen. We must accept both our culpability and our error. Then we must act immediately to rectify what we've done or haven't done if it's at all possible for us to do so. At the very least, we must learn from those mistakes so that we don't make similar ones again. Our personal lives will be the better for it if we do, and so will our reputations.
And when we're not making decisions for ourselves, we need to keep an eye on every single one of those men and women we're supposed to trust to make decisions on our behalf. If they're incapable of being as responsible and mature as we are, acknowledging their mistakes and working to fix them, and taking care to avoid whenever possible the horrors of unintended consequences, then we've got another decision to make. That decision, of course, involves the ballot box. If we choose not to wield one of the few powers still in the hands of the people, the consequences may be unintended, but I can assure you they'll continue to be very, very bad for usand for freedom.