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Jewish World Review
July 24, 2007
/ 9 Menachem-Av, 5767
Greed is safer than power-seeking
Able, industrious, imaginative and creative people the top 5% of mankinddivide into two broad categories: those who make money and those who make trouble.
It is striking that the hugely wicked are quite innocent of avarice. Hitler never showed any interest in money. Stalin left his salary envelopes unopened: When Stalin died, the little old desk in his modest office was found stuffed with them. Mao Zedong, over the course of his career, killed 70 million people, but toward the end of his life Mao failed to recognize a current banknote. These three monsters weren't obsessed with wealth; they were obsessed with power.
Then there are the troublemakers, whose activities take endless forms.
Writers, for instance, spin words that force people to think, debate and question the existing order and way of doing things. A key term in the vocabulary of praise, whether for plays, novels, poetry or works of philosophy, is "disturbing." It is assumed that people are naturally complacent and need to be disturbed. But the process is inevitably troubling.
Lawyers, another important group in this category, areor profess to beconcerned with justice. Their objective is to create and operate a system of rules that curb natural instincts and subject all human actions to standards of fairness. Clever lawyers become enthusiasts, and enthusiasm creates troublewitness, for instance, the vendetta the U.S. Department of Justice has pursued against many successful businessmen post-Enron.
Politicians make up a third group. Men and women enter politics, or so they say, to improve humanity's lot. Politicians are activists, busy at devising schemes of change and seeking to enact laws to make those changes compulsory. Their schemes tend to expand the power of government, thereby contracting the area in which individuals exercise their own judgment.
The 20th century saw an immense increase in the authority of government and the human actions it regulated. The process seems to be accelerating in the 21st century. In the decade during which New Labour has ruled in Britain, for example, more than 3,000 new criminal offenses of one kind or another have been added to the books, many involving such previously unrestricted activities as smoking or the voicing of opinions (now often designated as "hate crimes"). All this is troubling.
The self-appointed benefactors of mankind, a fourth and increasingly important group, constitute organizations such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth. They are even more prone to enthusiasm than are politicians and are buoyed by a sense of mission and high-principled idealism that often make them a little careless about the accuracy of their assertions. For many their causes are a substitute for traditional religion, inclining them to martyrdom and self-sacrifice in the extreme. These are the quintessential troublemakers of our age.
Whether such people help or hinder their fellow mortals in search of a better life is, again, a matter of opinion. I recall, more than 60 years ago, the explosion of the first atomic bomb. I was 16, and soon thereafter I entered (and won) a school essay competition on "The Consequences of Atomic Energy." My theme was the huge improvement that would be brought about by the harnessing of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.
That improvement has not, on the whole, taken place. What I failed to allow for was the birth of an entirely new group of wellintentioned enthusiasts whose particular troublemaking activity is directed toward nuclear power stations. These agitators have been remarkably successful in preventing their construction. As a result, the world has drifted into an energy shortage that has raised the cost of living, particularly for the poor. It has also aided in the revival of Russian power and ambition under Vladimir Putin's authoritarian regime.
Here is just one example of troublemaking as opposed to moneymaking: The new moneymakers of China and India have caused an increased demand in energy that producers are straining to meet, and the troublemakers in the West have intensified the crisis.
STIRRING THE POT
Of course, we need troublemakers. The ancient Egyptians thought Moses was a troublemaker. The Romans thought the same of Jesus, and the Popes the same of Martin Luther. Jean- Jacques Rousseau, Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freudthey all made trouble for those of settled opinion. All the same, I'm glad the majority of able and vigorous people opt for making money. It makes the world an easier place for the rest of us.
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04/02/07: Benefactors must be hardheaded
03/07/07: American idealism and realpolitik
11/28/06: Space: Our ticket to survival
10/24/06: Envy is bad economics
10/11/06: Better to Borrow or Lend? Rethinking conventional wisdom
08/22/06: Don't practice legal terrorism
08/08/06: A summer rhapsody for a pedal-bike
08/03/06: Why is there no workable philosophy of music?
07/11/06: Historically speaking, energy crisis is America's opportunity
07/06/06: The misleading dimensions of persons and lives
06/06/06: First editions are not gold
05/23/06: A downright ugly man need never despair of attracting women, even pretty
04/25/06: Was Washington right about political parties?
04/12/06: Let's Have More Babies!
04/05/06: For the love of trains
03/29/06: Lincoln and the Compensation Culture
03/22/06: Bottle-beauties and the globalised blond beast
03/15/06: Europe's utopian hangover
03/08/06: Kindly write on only one side of the paper
02/28/06: Creators versus critics
02/21/06: The Rhino Principle
© 2006, Paul Johnson