Friday, July 16, 2010

Fool's Gold Words

“We practice cutting edge medicine.” That was what the doctor told my wife my wife as he described a course of treatment. We did not find that reassuring. Neither of us cares a whit about if a treatment is cutting edge or if it has existed since before Hippocrates, what we care about is if the treatment is effective.

That physician's attempt at reassurance is an example of fool's gold words (or phrases). Like witch words* they are words that short-circuit thinking, though fool's gold words have an opposite effect. While witch words make us think something is automatically bad, fool's gold words make us think it is automatically good. Both however interfere with critical thinking. If you accept that something is good or bad without examining the evidence you will be frequently misled.

I first encountered the term “Fool's Gold Words” in John Chamberlain's introduction to the 1944 American edition of Hayek's The Road to Serfdom though I do not know if the term was original with him. He applied it to concepts such as full employment, economic pump priming, the good of the whole, the greatest good for the greatest number etc. However it also fits many buzz-words today.

The “cutting edge” phrase is only one of the fool's gold words infesting the world. Business, advertising, politics etc. all have words and phrases that mislead. Those words tend to be nebulous enough that it is difficult to pin down exactly what they mean. The phrase “cutting edge” of medicine, for example, tells us nothing about exactly what treatment is proposed nor about any evidence of its effectiveness or side effects.

In business I remember when “inventory reduction” became a fool's gold phrase. Everybody wanted to reduce inventory. In some cases that made sense but doing it uncritically caused problems. Many companies discovered that they needed the inventory they had discarded. However business at least has some effective feedback that often mitigates the problem. Companies that follow fool's gold words blindly tend to fail, allowing smarter companies to prosper. Not so in the political arena.

In politics fool's gold words and phrases abound. One often used is “for the children,” generally employed in the attempt to get higher taxes supposedly to benefit the children. However the effect of the fool's gold phrase is to convince people that they must do anything for the children, at any cost. That leads to uncritical actions at the expense of other parts of society. In fact it is often at the expense of the children themselves as their parents face heavy financial burdens.

Another fool's gold phrase is “a living wage.” The term is undefined but people who use it seem to think that everybody is entitled to wages far beyond what most people in this world receive. Most receive much less than what is commonly called a living wage – yet they live on it. Critical examination of the concept and how divorced it is from reality should show how meaningless the term is.

One current political fool's gold word is “stimulus.” Politicians want to use tax money and borrowed money to stimulate the economy. That sounds good but does it work? Evidence from history and economics indicates that it does not. Our economic problems were short-lived until Hoover and FDR decided to intervene. That led to the worst depression in history, yet our current leaders seem determined to repeat the actions that worsened the problems of the past.

Like witch words, fool's gold words will mislead us unless we are careful. We must learn to recognize and counteract them. Whenever a word or phrase short-circuits critical thinking we should be careful. When we recognize fool's gold words we should delve into their implications and see if there is evidence for those implications.


Saturday, July 3, 2010

Independence Day

[I'm going to repeat, with very little modification, what I posted here a year ago for Independence Day.]

Revolutions. History is strewn with them, including a minor one in Ecuador while I was there as a missionary. That revolution threw out a military junta but in so doing improved the situation of the citizens only a little. The same has happened repeatedly in this world. All too often overthrowing a tyrant only allows another to take his place, sometimes a worse one. Czarist Russia was replaced by the horror of Stalinist Communism. The French replaced their king with the excesses of the French Revolution. My friends in Ecuador overthrew the junta, then elected a demagogue. Yet tomorrow we celebrate the revolution that created these United States, probably the freest country in the world. Why was ours so successful while so many others failed?

The reason is that it is easier to destroy a bad government than to create a good one. Most revolutionaries concentrated on the revolution, not on the aftermath. That left the way open for new tyrants to take over. Our founders did not make that mistake; they went to great lengths to prevent government from becoming too powerful. They defined their principles in two remarkable documents, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. I believe that every Independence Day we should review those documents and see what we should do to defend the principles described therein.

Ours was a revolution not just of armies and government, but of ideas and a way of thinking about government. The Declaration of Independence was shocking at the time it was written. Its statement that all men are created equal must have been a shock to believers in the divine right of kings. Yet that simple statement contains the basis of our belief that we are all born with equal rights (though not, of course, equal abilities).

The next idea from the Declaration was perhaps even more radical. We are all endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights, including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Herein is the germ of limited government. If we have inalienable rights then no government can in justice take those rights away from us except as punishment for crime. That was an unheard of idea in a time when kings and aristocrats demanded obedience from those regarded as of less worth. It took decades, a civil war, and a civil rights movement to free the slaves and remove official racism. That only underscores how radical those statements were.

Next in the Declaration comes a line that is often ignored but is of supreme importance. “That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed.” This stood previous ideas of government on their heads. The government existed for and at the pleasure of the banker, the farmer, the garbage hauler, etc. collectively. It was an idea so radical as to be beyond the conception of most of the world at the time.

Of course if government exists at the pleasure of the governed that implies that the governed must take responsibility for how that government operates. The Constitution describes how that is to be done and again includes some ideas that were unheard of when it was written.

First was the idea that government was to be limited. Herein lies the genius of our founders. Democracies had existed before, but our founders added the idea that even a democracy cannot go beyond certain bounds. Based on the statement that all people have inalienable rights, the founders deliberately built restrictions into the Constitution. Certain laws are prohibited, no matter how many voters want them.

A bill of attainder was prohibited at the outset, as was any ex post facto law. Congress cannot just decide that you are a bad person and declare that you are a criminal. That would have the effect of making you illegal. A person cannot be illegal, though his actions may be. Nor can they decide that an action you committed yesterday was illegal because of a law passed today. Those restrictions allow citizen freedom from arbitrary government action.

The Bill of Rights was added soon after constitutional ratification and provides even more protection. Short of actual threats, you are free to say anything you want about the president, congress, or other government officials. Even if all the voters in the country want to outlaw certain forms of speech, they are prohibited from doing so. We have an inalienable right to our ideas and the free dissemination thereof.

Other rights of course have similar constitutional protections. That was the great legacy our founders gave us and for which we should be forever grateful to them.

However gratitude alone is inadequate. It has been wisely said that freedom is not free. We are constantly faced with politicians who love power and who would like to increase the power they have. The price of freedom is therefore eternal vigilance. We must consider wisely those for whom we vote and the type of government we support. We must resist demagoguery and the attempt of charismatic politicians to reduce those restrictions on government. We must also express our views to our hired representatives, not just send them off to do as they please.

We must also resist the temptation to vote benefits for ourselves at the expense of others. Those others whom we would tax to help ourselves should have the inalienable right to their liberty. That includes the right to decide how their property is used, subject only to the most necessary restrictions.

Most of all, we must realize that government can be a good servant but is a fearful master. We must keep it down as a servant and not allow it to become a master. Sadly, many politicians tend to think of themselves as an elite, above the ordinary citizen who should defer to their “superior wisdom.” That is a dangerous attitude and those people should not be elected.

Some politicians have also claimed, “We’re for the people, they’re for the powerful.”* I regard that as demagoguery, it detracts from the fact that government is the powerful, the most powerful entity in the country. That is a power that must be controlled and restricted.

Let us, this and every Independence Day, review the blessings of our limited, constitutional government and consider how we can best defend that constitutional government.

*The Gore campaign used that slogan in the 2000 presidential election.

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