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Jewish World Review Jan. 5, 2001 / 10 Teves, 5761

Thomas Sowell

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Lessons not learned -- AS WE MOVE into the 21st century, we need to take a look back at the 20th century, to see what lessons it offers that we should remember in the future.

If there is one lesson that is writ large across the history of the 20th century -- in letters of blood -- it is the catastrophic effect of unbridled political power. The despots of centuries past were bad enough, but the totalitarian dictatorships of the 20th century were the first to have both the ideology and the technology to slaughter tens of millions of their own people. We know about Hitler's Holocaust, but how many of our schools and colleges teach that Stalin killed more than twice as many innocent people and Mao more than Stalin?

Santayana understood long ago that those who do not learn the lessons of the past are doomed to repeat its mistakes. The ghastly mistakes of the 20th century should never again be repeated -- and certainly not in a nuclear age.

The greatest economic lesson of the 20th century is that politicians do a terrible job of running an economy. The history of the Soviet Union provides examples by the thousands. Its people paid a painful price in needless poverty, in a country with some of the most fertile land anywhere, and with an abundance of other rich natural resources. Yet our own politicians have increasingly begun to impose their decisions on individuals, farms and businesses through arbitrary regulations, red tape and restrictions. Here, as in the failed collectivist economies of the past, emotional rhetoric has swayed the masses and provided a blank check to those who held the levers of political power.

The defeat of the Nazis on the battlefields of World War II and of the Communist bloc in the Cold War has taught us remarkably little about what was wrong with those systems. Indeed, we have begun imitating some of the very features of such systems that made them so bad and ultimately so self-destructive.

At the heart of totalitarian dictatorship is the idea that there is no rule of law superior to the will of those who hold power or the ideology they are promoting. Though defeated on the stage of world history, such ideas are now beginning to get their revenge by gaining a foothold in the society that played the biggest role in defeating them -- the United States of America. American courts have increasingly moved away from their role as defenders of the Constitutional framework of the rule of law to deciding many substantive policy issues directly -- from abortion to affirmative action -- and even ordering taxes to be imposed to carry out some judge's notions of what ought to be done in schools or in prisons. Far from restraining the lawlessness of those in power, judges have themselves become one of the lawless powers.

So long as judicial usurpation of powers that the constitution gave to the legislative and executive branches of government serves liberal causes, the media see nothing wrong with it. Not only is the reason for the constitutional separation of powers lost on the media, so too is the tragic 20th century history of governments where power was not separated. The rule of law is seen, not as a bulwark against arbitrary power, but as an inconvenience to be circumvented to promote the liberal agenda.

Thus when the Florida Supreme Court took over the power which the written law granted to the executive branch to certify election results and control recounts, the only complaint was against the U.S. Supreme Court for stopping them. And when the Florida legislature prepared to exercise the power which the written law granted them to select the state's electors in the electoral college, there was outrage against the legislators -- as if they were usurping the judges' powers, instead of vice versa.

The Clinton administration has taken the corruption of the law to new heights -- or depths. It is not just the felonies committed by the president himself with impunity. It is the systematic corruption of one governmental institution after another in pursuit of political goals of the moment and the character assassination of any individuals who stood in the way, from witnesses to the president's misdeeds to those who dared to try to make him accountable to the law. Yet all is forgiven in response to clever rhetoric, genial image and political spin.

What is far worse than any of these things, considered in isolation, is that few Americans see these corruptions as undermining the principles and institutions on which our freedoms depend. The painful lessons of the 20th century remain unlearned.

JWR contributor Thomas Sowell, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, is author of several books, including his latest, A Personal Odyssey.


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