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Anyone for Tipping Points? A "New Model School" Opens in London

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Government and Failure

by Christopher Chantrill
September 25, 2004 at 8:00 pm


EVER NOTICED the difference between a politician running for office and a politician in office?  When running for election, the politician will say anything to get elected.  In the last few months we’ve seen the Kerry campaign provide us with a textbook example of this.  Every week, it seems, the campaign tries out a new theme.  Kerry is for the war.  Then he is against it.  He would have taken out Saddam Hussein.  Then it’s all a mistake.  He’s reporting for duty, surrounded by his band of brothers.  Then he’s going to get us out of Vietnam, er, make that Iraq.  He’ll do anything to get traction with the electorate.

But when politicians are actually governing, then they will say anything to avoid doing anything.  Is Social Security going broke?  Nothing can be done: but we will protect it with a “lockbox.”  Are the cities terrorized by teenage hoodlums?  Nothing can be done: the cops are racist.  Johnny can’t read?  Nothing can be done: the schools are underfunded.

There’s a simple reason for this.  When running for office, the politician must win or he is history.  But once in office he gets to merge himself with sacred symbols of nationhood and community.  Social Security is “ours.”  Youthful monsters are “our” future.  And everybody supports “our” teachers.  Governments have learned, over the ages, to hide behind these sacred symbols.  That way they can accuse their critics of profaning the sacred symbols instead of answering their criticism.

When government screws up, it usually manages to blame the corporations, and the people line up to cheer.  When the US government screwed up the economy in the 1970s with wage and price controls, people were happy to blame the oil companies for gas lines and soaring gas prices.  When the government of California screwed up electric regulation in the 1990s, people lined up to blame Enron but kept silent about municipal electric utilities in the Pacific Northwest that were price gouging with the best of them.

Of course, when government really screws up, then people blame capitalism itself.  In the 1930s, when the government suits made mistake after mistake, committing wrong on wrong, by reducing the money supply, allowing banks to fail, keeping failing businesses alive, raising tax rates, boosting import tariffs, and creating a corporative state with the fascist NRA, who did people blame?  Why, they blamed Wall Street speculators, heartless bankers, and capitalism itself!  By 1939, after Franklin D. Roosevelt had succeeded against all odds in prolonging the Great Depression for ten years, he was reckoned a national hero.

We want government to attack problems, and so they do, happily attacking them for years and years without effect.  But corporations are different.  From them we demand satisfaction or our money back.  Why do we tolerate this double standard?  Who knows?

But the lesson is obvious.  When we want to attack problems, there is nothing better than getting a government involved.  But we should understand that the problem would never get solved.  For when we charge a government with a job, all we do is appropriate our money for people to work on the problem.  Chances are they will discover that the problem is much bigger than anyone imagines, and that they will need more money to make a dent in the problem.

When we want to solve a problem we should charge it to a corporation.  Fed up with high whale oil prices?  Here’s a young bookkeeper, John D. Rockefeller, who has been doing a modest trade in Pennsylvania mineral oil and has some ideas about “standardizing” the oil to make it safe.  Want a car in every garage?  Here’s crackpot mechanic Henry Ford with an idea to apply the methods of the meatpacking industry to automobile manufacture.  Want to get a package delivered coast-to-coast overnight?  Here’s crazy Fred Smith with an idea to fly the packages to Memphis, sort them, and then fly them on to their destinations in the morning.

Then there’s Sam Walton and Wal-mart.  They ought to build a mausoleum for that guy in Tiananmen Square next to Chairman Mao.  In his endless quest to deliver everyday low prices he’s done as much as anyone to get the Chinese people off their knees and into prosperity and security.

Government is in the business of protecting a terrified people and leading them to safety.  If it ever did get them into the Promised Land, it would be out of a job.  But corporations, the creatures of double-entry bookkeeping and limited liability, are in the business of customer satisfaction.  Again and again and again.

Christopher Chantrill blogs at www.roadtothemiddleclass.com.

Buy his Road to the Middle Class.

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Faith & Purpose

“When we began first to preach these things, the people appeared as awakened from the sleep of ages—they seemed to see for the first time that they were responsible beings, and that a refusal to use the means appointed was a damning sin.”
Finke, Stark, The Churching of America, 1776-1990

Mutual Aid

In 1911... at least nine million of the 12 million covered by national insurance were already members of voluntary sick pay schemes. A similar proportion were also eligible for medical care.
Green, Reinventing Civil Society


“We have met with families in which for weeks together, not an article of sustenance but potatoes had been used; yet for every child the hard-earned sum was provided to send them to school.”
E. G. West, Education and the State

Living Under Law

Law being too tenuous to rely upon in [Ulster and the Scottish borderlands], people developed patterns of settling differences by personal fighting and family feuds.
Thomas Sowell, Conquests and Cultures

German Philosophy

The primary thing to keep in mind about German and Russian thought since 1800 is that it takes for granted that the Cartesian, Lockean or Humean scientific and philosophical conception of man and nature... has been shown by indisputable evidence to be inadequate. 
F.S.C. Northrop, The Meeting of East and West


Inquiry does not start unless there is a problem... It is the problem and its characteristics revealed by analysis which guides one first to the relevant facts and then, once the relevant facts are known, to the relevant hypotheses.
F.S.C. Northrop, The Logic of the Sciences and the Humanities


“But I saw a man yesterday who knows a fellow who had it from a chappie that said that Urquhart had been dipping himself a bit recklessly off the deep end.”  —Freddy Arbuthnot
Dorothy L. Sayers, Strong Poison

Democratic Capitalism

I mean three systems in one: a predominantly market economy; a polity respectful of the rights of the individual to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; and a system of cultural institutions moved by ideals of liberty and justice for all. In short, three dynamic and converging systems functioning as one: a democratic polity, an economy based on markets and incentives, and a moral-cultural system which is plural and, in the largest sense, liberal.
Michael Novak, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism


The incentive that impels a man to act is always some uneasiness... But to make a man act [he must have] the expectation that purposeful behavior has the power to remove or at least to alleviate the felt uneasiness.
Ludwig von Mises, Human Action


[In the] higher Christian churches... they saunter through the liturgy like Mohawks along a string of scaffolding who have long since forgotten their danger. If God were to blast such a service to bits, the congregation would be, I believe, genuinely shocked. But in the low churches you expect it every minute.
Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm


“When we received Christ,” Phil added, “all of a sudden we now had a rule book to go by, and when we had problems the preacher was right there to give us the answers.”
James M. Ault, Jr., Spirit and Flesh

Living Law

The recognition and integration of extralegal property rights [in the Homestead Act] was a key element in the United States becoming the most important market economy and producer of capital in the world.
Hernando de Soto, The Mystery of Capital

presented by Christopher Chantrill

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