Jewish World Review Oct. 15, 2004 / 30 Tishrei, 5765

Thomas Sowell

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The tyranny of visions, Part II

http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | Some people think of California as a place where many kooky ideas originate. It is that but there is more to it than that.


California has long had more than its fair share of busybodies with a vision of the world in which it is necessary for them to force other people to do Good Things. That is not just a vision of the world, it is a vision of themselves — a very flattering vision that they are not likely to give up for anything so mundane as facts or logic.


One of the latest examples is a recent ruling by one of the many busybody commissions in California that people who build houses, or just remodel their homes, will in the future have to have more fluorescent lights and even install motion sensors to control lights — all in the name of saving energy.


Motion sensors? Yes. If you are in a room where motion sensors control the lights, sitting still for a while will cause the lights to go off automatically.


The idea of the anointed busybodies is that we lesser people often leave the lights on when we walk out of a room, thereby wasting energy. The answer, as in so many other cases, is to impose their superior wisdom and virtue by forcing us to do a Good Thing — in this case install motion sensors to turn out the lights automatically when there is no one moving in the room.


If you are one of those people who just likes to sit still and think for a while, or perhaps listen to music or watch television, look for the lights to start going off if you are in California — and get used to having to wave your arms or shake your legs in order to get them to come back on again. But it's a Good Thing.


The world is full of Good Things, which is why there are so many laws and regulations increasingly intruding into our lives and restricting what we can do, even in our own homes. The vision of imposing Good Things means an ever-growing petty tyranny.

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In some countries, where such visions are more sweeping, the tyranny is far from petty. Around the world and for thousands of years, human beings have not been able to leave other human beings alone.


Just think of all the centuries in which Christians tried to force Jews to change their religion or Moslems tried to force other people to adopt Islam. Was there nothing better to do with all that time and energy except persecute people for having different beliefs?


Some people obviously thought it was a Good Thing to have other people believe what they believed or to unify the country with one religion. Like today's busybodies, they seldom stopped to consider the cost of the Good Thing they wanted to do.


Whole economies have been ruined by expelling productive minorities who happened to have a different religion or belonged to a different race. After Spain expelled the Moorish Christians in the 16th century, one of the religious leaders who had advocated their expulsion asked: "Who will make our shoes now?"


That would have been a very good question to ask before expelling them. Similar questions might well have been asked before France's persecution of the Huguenots led them to flee in the 17th century, taking many productive enterprises from France with them.


Twentieth century examples are too numerous to cite.


Good Things have costs, often costs out of all proportion to whatever good they might do. But notions like trade-offs and diminishing returns seldom deter zealots, whose own egos are served by their zealotry in imposing their vision, however costly or counterproductive it may be for others.


The whole environmental extremist movement is based on doing Good Things, in utter disregard of costs or diminishing returns.


The idea that DDT might leave residues with harmful effects on the eggs of some birds was enough to set off a worldwide environmental crusade to ban the use of that insecticide. The resurgence of malaria after that ban has cost millions of human lives.


Green zealots are not about to reconsider, on this or a whole range of other issues. Their vision triumphed, their superior wisdom and virtue were affirmed, and that is what it is ultimately all about. To admit, even to themselves, that their ego trips have cost other people their lives would be too much.

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JWR contributor Thomas Sowell, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, is author of several books, including his latest, "Applied Economics: Thinking Beyond Stage One." (Click HERE to purchase. Sales help fund JWR.) To comment please click here.

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