“I believe there is evil in the world,” said Newt Gingrich… referring to things he doesn’t like. “It is the legitimate role of government to try to limit and control evil.”
The words to that Pink Floyd song came back to us again: “So you think you can tell… Heaven from Hell?” Gingrich and Estrich think they can. Like so many smart people, they overestimate their own brainpower.
In the democracy they both say they cherish, there is no higher authority than the voters themselves. These voters, too, think they can tell. Egged on by their leaders, they vote in favor of The Good and demand that their public servants do it. And thus, in the uncluttered minds of Gingrich and Estrich, does the great, mature U.S. Empire… bumble forward, from one war on evil to another.
It fought the War in Vietnam…
Then the War on Poverty…
Then the War on Drugs…
And now the War on Terrorism…
Win, lose or draw… the fight goes on. Always fighting to make the world a better place – to improve the planet and the lives of all it inhabitants… except for those it considers ‘evil.’
What occurred to us upon watching this spectacle was the futility of it all. “There are already too many drug problems in the United States… why create more of them by making drugs more available,” asked Ms. Estrich. It was the sort of rhetorical flourish that might be used by any candidate on any campaign trail. It sounds so reasonable, so logical, so impeccably, unarguably correct.
And yet… it only makes sense if you strip out the subtleties and ironies of real life. As far as we know, few people are forced to use drugs. If someone does, it is because he wants to do so. If he wants to do so, why should anyone else’s desires for him be more important than his own desires for his own, dumb self?
Is it so unbelievable that a private citizen, in his personal life – for reasons entirely his own – may decide he is better off if he uses marijuana? Many people do. Have they not made their own cost/benefit evaluation – the cost of the weed (including potential health and legal consequences) against the benefit it gives them? What do the voters know of these private calculations? They are completely ignorant of them, and so are the senators and congressmen who pass the laws that send the drug users to prison. They over-rule the users’ private desires…with desires of their own, presumably for a country where people do not use the substances the majority of voters don’t like.
“Wait a minute,” said Doug, “this has already been tried. It was tried in prohibition.”
Guardians of the public weal, declare war on drugs. And then they argue about how the war should be conducted… not knowing whether the war, even if it were successful, would really make the world a better place.
In the case of prohibition, the ban on alcohol famously did not eliminate strong drink. But suppose it had? Would America be a better place if people couldn’t drink a glass of wine with their dinner or a beer while watching TV? The prohibitionists thought so. “Thousands of people die each year from alcohol-related illnesses,” they pointed out. But even thousands of dead people sounds like a small price to pay for the benefits of alcohol. Life may be dangerous with demon rum on the loose. But for many people, life is tediously unbearable without it.
None of this makes any difference to the world-improvers, of course. They’re ready to intervene at almost anytime, anywhere to make the world over in their own image. If they don’t like strong drink… they want to make it illegal. If they don’t like smoking, they want to ban it.
“If we don’t take the initiative now,” Gingrich went on, changing to another war, “these people will become more powerful; it will be like ignoring the threat of Nazi Germany before WWII.”
Here again, Newt Gingrich thinks he can spot evil when he sees it. And Muslim fundamentalists, he says, are evil. They’re planning to kill us all, if you believe the former Speaker of the House.
Could any clearer case for government intervention be found than the rise of Hitler? He should have been crushed long before 1939, Gingrich says.
But spotting evil in retrospect is a whole lot easier than spotting it as a clear and present danger today. Before ’39 few people had a clear idea of what brand of evil Hitler was peddling. Many of the smartest people in the world – even in the U.S. Congress – figured Hitler was not a greater evil, but a lesser one. Compared to the Bolsheviks, Hitler was no saint, but nor was he the biggest monster in the world. Compared to Mao, he was practically Mother Teresa.
“You are just arguing about whiter shades of pale,” replies the world-improver. “Evil is evil…and we should fight it wherever it appears.”
But what we are really talking about is the ability of any people to know evil when they see it – especially politicians with their eyes on the latest polls and election results. And then, even if they could know it, we are suspicious of their ability to take action, collectively, to do something about it. When the Allies set out to destroy Hitler, for example, they saved the day for Stalin. Later, Stalin saved Mao from Chiang Kai-Shek; again, with the active connivance of the Americans.
Even in the most famous and clear-cut case for meddling, the meddlers made a mess of it.
But our critique of Estrich and Gingrich goes deeper. We argue that those who claim they can tell good from evil flatter themselves. More tomorrow…