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Samizdata Quote of the Day

“God made the 20th Century to teach us that the notion that things work better when experts plan them is a fallacy. It’s a pity that a hundred-million or so had to die to illustrate the lesson. But now we got it. Right?”
John Weidner

28 comments to Samizdata Quote of the Day

  • But now we got it. Right?

    Unfortunately, no. The starkest evidence is all the people voting for the socialist Bush believing he is a small govt advocate.

  • Bombadil

    Just out of curiousity, Jonathan, which candidate do you propose as an advocate of small government?

  • That’s the painful thing, isn’t it?

    But I doubt that many people still think Bush is a small-government Republican; they are voting for him because he has a half-way sane defense policy.

  • Jacob

    “they are voting for him because he has a half-way sane defense policy.”

    They are voting for him because is half-way sane , unlike the other candidates.

  • Bombadil

    But I doubt that many people still think Bush is a small-government Republican; they are voting for him because he has a half-way sane defense policy.

    I agree. I wouldn’t mind the additional expense in time of national crisis (WWII put the country into unheard-of levels of debt, after all) but so much of the spending is the typical nanny-state BS the Spendocrats dearly love.

    Bush = Republicrat? Demolican?

  • Tom

    Experts planned the eradication of smallpox. Was that a bad thing?

  • Anointiata Delenda Est

    Yes, we are going to get there slowly, so George isn’t perfect but he is as good as we are going to get right now.

  • mad dog

    Yeah – smallpox could teach those experts a thing or two when it comes to killing millions. Why don’t those experts pick on someone their own size…

  • Rob Read

    If you want to find a word to descibe the current UK government then you cannot do better than this german word Gleichschaltung

  • toolkien

    Experts planned the eradication of smallpox. Was that a bad thing?

    For us, no. For the future people who have to deal with over-population perhaps yes. Every ying has a yang. Eliminating certain pestilences benefits the generation or two in tune genetically, but new ones will develop and the end point is over-population unless wars or new diseases thin the herd. But, as I interpret the post, it is ‘experts’ taking the reins of state that problems arise. I don’t know anyone who has a problem with an ‘expert’ with whom one chooses to contract with, it is when an individual self appoints themselves the expert and forces you to do or not do what you choose.

    “God made the 20th Century to teach us that the notion that things work better when experts plan them is a fallacy. It’s a pity that a hundred-million or so had to die to illustrate the lesson. But now we got it. Right?”

    Was I the only one to note irony here? Or was there none intended?

  • Just out of curiousity, Jonathan, which candidate do you propose as an advocate of small government?

    Nobody from the two major parties certainly.

    I don’t vote, so I’m proposing not any candidate, but the current crop of contenders are more unappealing than in any election I can remember.

  • Euan

    The statist viewpoint will always be with us, sometimes it just takes a back seat. Then, when people forget, it comes to the fore again.

    Unfortunately, history teaches us only that history teaches us nothing.

    toolkien – the world will not suffer from overpopulation. This is a Malthusian error based on failing to take into account improving agricultural technology (e.g. GMO, hydroponic farming, etc) and the apparent fact that populations tend to self-limit.

  • Experts planned the eradication of smallpox. Was that a bad thing?

    Excellent question. I think very few people would claim that the outcome was a bad thing, even if the means (coercive funding) were immoral. However, the elevation of these experts into experts status has an inertia of its own that is difficult to stop. The functional heirs of the public health experts who pushed for the eradication of smallpox are now advocating Burger Taxes, mandatory medical examinations, and smoking bans on private property. The experts are now an irresistable force and require an immovable object to stop them. None such objects can be found.

  • limberwulf

    I cant bring myself to not vote, thats too hands off for me. But I will probably vote a write in, unless the LP puts someone somewhat sane on the ticket. Bush is almost certainly going to win, but I want my voice to show that I dont want either party in power, and I think my voice can show it better as a counted vote than an uncounted one. If enough people who are too disillusioned to vote went to the polls and voted for a random person, not a member of the parties, it wouldnt change who won, but it would send a message that we want something different. Just a thought.

  • S. Weasel

    Depends on how you define overpopulation, Euan. I agree that technology will keep pace with a growing population, but that doesn’t mean an earth with a huge increase over current population levels would necessarily be a pleasant place to live. And the self-limits don’t work properly if the government meddles with them overmuch – by, for example, subsidizing the baby making of non-earners.

    In other words, we can survive population growth, but I don’t have faith that we can do it in an aesthetically pleasing way. I have nightmares of living in a world that looks like coast-to-coast Brooklyn. Or Croydon.

  • Jonathan,

    The people’s inchoate sense of natural justice is the only true corrective to “the expert state”. It is not quick-acting – Prof Meadow’s highly profitable specialism is a good example. But nonetheless it’s all we have and all we can put our faith in.

    Natalie points to the great upheavals of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. But I submit that these disasters correlate to the inability of the people to self-express. The more freedom individuals have to do so the more potential exists for lies and wrongdoing to be expunged from public life.

  • TheWobbly Guy

    It’s all about access to information. The more information available to the public, especially about policies and experts, the less likely they are to get away with questionable actions and attitudes.

    Of course, there is every chance that the public might just not care. Slow encroaching authoritarian policies have a habit of numbing people, such that they themselves cannot even tell when things have to be changed.

  • Euan

    Weasel – even in Britain, screwed up and welfarised into insanity though it is, the native population is not growing. I’m not 100% sure, but I think it’s declining and the overall population is only expanding/stabilising because of immigration.

    I would think that, even if the state does subsidise births to unproductive people, the population would still level off and perhaps decline. This seems to be happening, but I couldn’t say I know exactly why.

    I’m not sure that even massive state intervention could increase the population to dangerously high levels. The strucutral problems in such a command economy (which would be necessary to attempt this) would constrain the available resources and so impose a limit anyway. Ultimately, the economy would collapse and things would again naturally stabilise. Doesn’t mean, of course, that there wouldn’t be hunger and disease in between times, but I can’t see the general scenario happening.

    Going back to the original subject, I don’t think the statist approach has gone. Salami-slice tactics for gradually eroding liberties do, as the Wobbly Guy notes, result in insufficient people actually noticing the supremacy of the state until it’s too late. Besides that, people will persist in voting for whoever offers them what appears to be free money via welfare, and to satisfy this a large state is needed and will be justified (and the justification accepted) as necessary for “social justice” or whatever the appropriate phrase is at the time.

    As Kent Brockman said, “I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – democracy just doesn’t work”. Sad but, I feel, true.

  • Bombadil

    As Kent Brockman said, “I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – democracy just doesn’t work”. Sad but, I feel, true.

    But representative government gives the stamp of legitimacy to the government’s actions. The gov’t actors have been selected by the source of gov’t power: the enfranchised population.

    So if it doesn’t work, that what does? Enlightened dictatorship would be fine, but who decides that the actions of the dictator are enlightened? The Baathists probably thought Saddam was a pretty good guy.

  • S. Weasel

    But that’s just it, Euan (sorry to keep pulling this off-topic). Immigration is handily taking over where local breeding dwindles. You can argue that it will stop when the whole world is more or less similarly prosperous, but a) I don’t see that happening any time soon, and b) by the time it does, what will our countries look like?

    This is already too crowded a planet, in my judgment. Yes, it’s a question of aesthetics rather than survival, but aesthetics count for a good deal.

  • toolkien

    and the apparent fact that populations tend to self-limit.

    Is that what it’s called in China when they dump kids down wells? I suppose I did leave out the third option – dystopian statism. People are punished for having too many children so they have to make them count. If not the right type, down the well it goes.

    It’s a simple reality that either the population of humans suffer with disease and war or the population will grow to an unsustainable level. In any event, when a ‘bad’ is removed (such as the small pox eradicated by experts) it has an effect namely more ‘future’ humans that will die of something else, perhaps by privation, disease or war, or maybe they pass away blissfully in their sleep. But humans, like any other life form, if not bounded, will grow beyond its environment.

    We are only starting the third ‘sanitary’ century and are apparently on the cusp of the ‘wonder drug’ revolution. In that time the population has exploded. Granted as children have become wants versus needs, they come with less frequency, at least in the ‘developed’ west. And technology will put off when a critical point is reached but there is obviously a physical limit to the earth and some point will be reached where the population is unsustainable absent war and disease.

    So while an earth overpopulated to a point of crisis is probably someway off, it is the logical result of eradication of diseases and a decline in war. The more people that live to child rearing age the more there will be. The only boundaries are disease, war, and state control. Removing the first two will still get you the third. If populations grow and move, you will likely get the second if not some of the first.

    So, again toward the point, eliminating disease only sets up other problems. The state involvement in the issue, the ‘ying’, will eventually produce a ‘yang’. But of course this our space and time and we will live as we choose including eliminating and/or preventing disease. The effects on the future are for those hypothetical people to deal with. But the question is whether the State of experts should be involved in such activities is the basic question. A cabal of experts in control of the State will only change who and when and can never produce net Good. They will produce a net 0.

  • Euan

    So if it doesn’t work, that what does?

    Qualified democracy? Of course it’s politically unacceptable, but I’d think a combination of restricting the franchise to those who actually contribute / have a stake in the outcome might help. Say over-21s who have been in paid employment for 6 of the previous 12 months, or owners of a certain amount of property? Then again, it will be argued that we all have a stake.

    An inviolable constitutional cap on government spending at, say, 15% of GDP except in time of declared war? In Britain’s case, it would be handy to have a constitution to start with, naturally.

    Government by experts is, I think, driven by two motivators – money and control. Laissez-faire capitalism could make the first academic by (in time) replacing all wage labour by machine, which would make the money cost of everything zero. Still we would have the control freaks, and I’m not so sure how to permanently eliminate them. After all, they’d want to control and “guide” us for our own protection against the machines…

    Weasel – I don’t know how our society will look then, but one option is unpleasant and involves theocracy, intolerance and learning Arabic. (I’m British, so I have a natural disinclination to learn anything other than “yes”, “no”, “thank you”, and “you can’t do that to me, I’m British” in any foreign language) Seriously, though, that’s the biggest problem I see right now. It has the potential to destroy the Anglo-Saxon tradition of liberty, and realistically is only going to be averted by some politically incorrect measures. Then again, if we didn’t need oil….

    toolkien – I still maintain that we will not realistically suffer from overpopulation. The usable land area on this planet can (given efficient mechanised farming & application of technology) support probably three or four times the current population, and I don’t think it will ever get that high. It appears that as societies become more propserous, so the birth rate falls. It is not true, at least not beyond a certain point, that as more live to breeding age the more the population increases. Why, in that case, is the native birth rate in the more prosperous Western nations declining?

  • I just want to re-iterate Euan’s last point about birth rates falling as prosperity rises. It’s the whole r versus K breeding strategy continuum manifesting itself when you get a large enough middle class, and then flip to a smaller stable birth rate (can’t afford college for too many kids!)

    The big question is at what population level India and China will be at when they turn that corner of having a large enough, prosperous enough middle class.

    Africa, the only other seriously overpopulated place on Earth, is already experiencing die-back from AIDS. Hopefully a stable equilibrium will be achieved after it has run it’s course.

  • Jim Mangles

    To go back to the original question, I think it was Churchill who said that experts should be on tap, not on top. (If it wasn’t Churchill, it sounds like him and it should’ve been him.)

    And he was right. Experts are essential to deal with the multivarious problems and complexities of the modern world, but they must always remain no more than a resource for the people really running the show.

    Euan says A cabal of experts in control of the State will only change who and when and can never produce net Good. They will produce a net 0.

    Well, this is also known as the zero-sum game. It is a common fallacy, first demolished in 1776 by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations. Of course we (and we are all experts in something or another) can improve the common good. Smith used the example of a manufacturing process, where specialisation (ie., ‘expertisation’) of workers into different parts of the manufacturing process made it possible to deliver far more finished goods than would be possible if everyone remained a generalist.

    And this applies to the world in general. In other words, life, the universe and everything is not a zero-sum game.

  • Great Churchill quote, Mr Mangles.

    If I can I’d like to pull together the original intent of this quote and the Malthusian way this comments thread has turned out.

    “The only boundaries are disease, war, and state control.” Yer what? What’s wrong with “prosperity plus the Pill,” the Happy Horseman of the Non-Apocalypse? Experts contribute, but it is put into place by the sum of voluntary decisions.

  • TheWobbly Guy

    The very crux of the topic at hand is whether experts do more good or harm. Sad historical experience has shown that the majority isn’t always right.

    But that doesn’t mean that the minority(experts) are always right either. Both sides foul up. Both sides make good decisions. There’s no easy solution to this quandry, except perhaps a precarious balance of power, checks and balances. The US system does this remarkably well.

  • Sage

    God did make the twentieth century–in an ultimate, spatio-temporal way–but it was WE who made a bloodbath of it. Interesting that we still blame God for our sins, when it is also we who have declared Him dead.

    It’s just like George from Seinfeld. When complaining that God will never let him be happy, Jerry challenges him that he doesn’t even believe in God. George replies, “For the bad things I do.” And so do we.

  • Jim Mangles

    The outstanding example of a 20th Century national leader who was contemptious of and disregarded experts, espacially but not only the military variety, was Adolf Hitler.

    We need experts. I rest my case.