Free Markets, Human Liberty and The Environment

Edmund Burke, an eighteenth century promoter of responsible human liberty, opposed the French version of Liberté and consequently suffered many insults and rebukes. In England, the French version of liberty was also popular and to many Burke was more reactionary than libertarian. Likewise, George Washington sought to prevent French Liberté from invading America, and was chastised by many “democrats”. Burke and Washington opposed the ideology of the French Revolution because they understood it would merely replace one form of tyranny with another, one ruling oligarchy with another.

 

We are well into the twenty-first century and if there is a predominant ideology in the West it is an environmental socialism that is skeptical of free markets, skeptical of local decision-making, skeptical of human liberties and enterprise that conflict with the “rights” of snails, mad as hell about human assaults on the environment, a twenty-first century Liberté where opposing perspectives are ridiculed and put down rather than investigated with reason and evidence.

 

Much good has been accomplished and promoted by people with strong ecological sensibilities, but the greatest good has been achieved when evidence, reason, and civil debate were the guideposts, not ideological dogma: early 20thcentury water filtration and disinfection to prevent drinking water-borne diseases; mid and later 20thcentury programs to advance wastewater treatment and management of the residuals they produce; utility, industry, and home technologies to get soot and smog out of urban areas. Programs that made a big difference in people’s lives, not virtue-signaling “crises” with marginal impacts that cost a fortune and eliminate jobs.

 

Evidence and reason reveal that representative democracies that value human liberty, personal responsibility, and freer markets, societies that still esteem time-tested virtues, are far better environmental stewards than top down oligarchies like Russia and China, and better environmental stewards than oligarchies posing as democracies (in the Industrial Age and today). We know that none of the world’s representative democracies are perfect—not even close, but those with legislative, judicial, and societal brakes on oligarchs, bureaucracies that answer to no one, and criminal opportunists best serve their citizens andthe environment. Look it up.

 

Why are so many well-educated people skeptical of free markets, individual liberty informed by personal responsibility, the classical virtues? Because for all the information at our fingertips the ability to distinguish between evidence and speculation, or ideology, has atrophied; because mainstream and social media reward those who hold “enlightened” views while punishing those who challenge the “virtuous” consensus; because, for many, environmental talking points and funding streams are more important than evidence.  Reasoning itself is suspect as a weapon of imperialistic, racist, or sexist societies, despite paragons of reasoning abiding in every culture. So many problems—global, local, economic, health related—are blamed on climate change because the claims are never challenged, because we are unable to distinguish between carefully reasoned and superficial arguments. Sadly, much more practical good could be accomplished on the climate front if we separated speculation from evidence-based conclusions.

 

In the 1960s, flower children inscribed “Frodo lives” on subway and building walls, and while they were muddled in many things they were on to something, esteeming the democratic society, individual liberties, free trade, personal virtue, and care for the natural world that predominated in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Shire. Of all the fads of the 60s that have faded, too bad it was the one closest to the truth.

The Lord of The Rings as Realism

Imagine proposing Monet or Picasso as art realists—the reaction one expects when asserting that J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of The Rings”, notwithstanding elves, goblins, wizards, dragons, is radically realistic.

 

Don’t be fooled by Tolkien’s archaic forms of speech, jaw breaking names for people and places, or dense song-making, as this story is more realistic than storytelling deeply rooted in the modern world or rife with modern angst. Starting with the consequences of self-sacrifice, when such sacrifice is likely to end in failure and destruction. Frodo and Sam take on the mission of conveying the Ring of Power to Mordor so as to destroy it, but the likelihood of success is close to zero and the probability that the Ring will destroy them—destruction in a sense worse than death—is all but certain. Not because there is glory in this mission, because it is necessary. Where else have the stakes been portrayed so graphically as in the person of Gollum, who is both Frodo’s guide and fallen self? Even Frodo’s grand “success” leaves him in a world in which the damage he sustained cannot be healed, as often occurs with those who make heroic sacrifices. If final healing can be obtained, Tolkien suggests it must occur beyond the confines of this world.

 

The Voice of Saruman the traitorous wizard is depicted as having the power to sway the minds of the great and small alike. Though we are loath to admit that we can be so swayed, how often do we make decisions based on what compelling voices, laden with appeals to our emotions and predispositions, tell us to do? How hard it is, especially for the educated and strong-minded, to admit they can be twisted, yet history repeatedly demonstrates that human beings can be convinced of anything when “Voices” appeal to their self-interests or kindle strong fears.

 

The Palantir is a kind of crystal ball in which other places and events can be viewed, a seeing stone that ostensibly bestows power on the viewer. In fact, it is employed to make Denethor, the steward/ruler of Gondor, see what the Enemy wants him to see, to twist and ultimately break his mind with rage and despondency. Don’t our modern Palantirs—Internet, phones, virtual reality games, social media, TV—promise knowledge, entertainment, or power while manipulating our emotions and beliefs? Aren’t we often enfeebled rather than empowered by such things?

 

Most of us would have endless life if we could, but the immortal elves in Middle Earth, for all their creativity and wisdom, are restless with the impermanence of the world around them, a restlessness that days without end cannot ameliorate; the reason the elves are slowly embarking from a Middle Earth to which they are still strongly attached. Tolkien well understood Augustine’s admonition that nothing in this world can ultimately satisfy.

 

Lastly, the Ring of Power; rather, the Ring of Slavery, its effects depicted in the Ringwraiths and Gollum: an endlessly horrible existence, the eradication of freedom, power to destroy but not create anything with a sliver of beauty, utter slavery to the Maker of the Ring. When tormented by a “Voice” or “Palantir” or “Ring”, haven’t we had internal conversations eerily similar to Gollum’s terrifying soliloquies? Is the Ring in the story so different from the effects of drug addictions, sexual obsessions, the relentless accumulation of things and power, all-consuming hatred of the “other”, that plague humankind? Every one of us must make choices, sometimes daily, as to whether to put on the Ring that promises what our fallen self desires, or to put it away.

 

Contrast the realism depicted in modern literature with Tolkien’s realism. For the moderns: our perspective defined by psychology, culture, education, victimhood, chance; our purpose self-defined; a materialistic universe and the finality of death. For Tolkien: the insidious lure of sin, the call to “irrational” self-donation, hope beyond our human frailty and the grave. One might say mutually exclusive realities. I’ve read “The Lord of The Rings” many times, first as fantasy and adventure—a heroic saga, as myth come to life—but in the twilight of my life as a relentlessly realistic portrayal of the human condition that we’d do well to heed.

 

The human heart

Those who live only for pleasure become cynical in middle age. A cynic has been defined as one who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. You blame things, rather than self. If you are married, you say: “If I had another husband, or another wife, I could be happy.” Or you say, “If I had another job…” or, “If I were in another city, I would be happy”…

 

Once you realize that God is your end…you begin to see that friendship, the joys of marriage, the thrill of possession, the sunset and the evening star, masterpieces of art and music, the gold and silver of earth, the industries and the comfort of life, are all the gifts of God. He dropped them on the roadway of life to remind you that if these are so beautiful then what must be BEAUTY? He intended them to be bridges to cross over to him…

 

Unfortunately, many become so enamored of the gifts the great Giver of Life has dropped on the roadway of life that they build their cities around the gift, and forget the Giver, and when the gifts, out of loyalty to their Maker, fail to give them perfect happiness, they rebel against God and become cynical and disillusioned…

 

Look at your heart! It tells the story of why you were made. It is not perfect in shape and contour, like a Valentine heart. There seems to be a small piece missing out of the side of every human heart. That may be to symbolize a piece that was torn out of the heart of Christ, which embraced all humanity on the cross…

 

When God made your human heart, he found it so good and so lovable that he kept a small sample of it in heaven. He sent the rest of it into this world to enjoy his gifts and to use them as steppingstones back to him.   (Fulton Sheen)

 

 

The Audience, A Christmas story

THE NIGHT BEFORE MY AUDIENCE WITH THE KING I WENT THROUGH MY BAG to make sure everything was there. Considering what was at stake, I couldn’t be too careful.

One by one, I took them out and replaced them: the ode I’d composed in the King’s honor, the proclamation for the King’s monument I’d commissioned, the ledger of revenue I’d collected for the King: the evidence that demonstrated my worthiness for knighthood.

I’d been traveling a long road to the royal capital and had been sleeping poorly, but the next morning I was eager to make for the castle. As I traversed the long corridor to the throne room, the order in which I should present my evidence was first and foremost in my mind.

The throne room wasn’t what I’d expected, rather small and humble by my standards. When I was presented to the King, he greeted me by name—a good sign that—and asked that I make myself comfortable, serving me a sumptuous breakfast at a table facing the throne, though I was too preoccupied to do more than sample the fare.

Before he could say another word, I told him about the things I desired to place before him.

“That’s not necessary,” he said.

“But it is, Your Highness,” I insisted.

When I went for my bag, I found it wasn’t at hand. Had I left it at the door, or in the corridor?

“I must find my bag, Sir,” I told him.

“You need not,” he said, but how could I represent myself properly without the evidence of all I’d been doing on his behalf?

I bowed and made for the door, and there in a shadowy corner was my bag. I clutched it tightly to my breast and hurried back to the table, pushing the feast aside and setting it before him.

“What do you have for me?” he said.

I reached into the bag. I was so dumbfounded I couldn’t resist removing each and every item: a judgment where I’d favored a rich man over his poor cousin, the work order to expand my private granaries, the green cap belonging to the beggar woman I’d insulted at the door of my manor, a bottle of the best wine in the world I’d acquired at great cost.

As he looked down on these tokens, all I could think to say was, “An enemy has done this, Your Highness.”

A profound sadness clouded his features, and I anticipated a terrible verdict, but when he spoke, he said, “I know about these things, but they won’t change my decision, because I judge you regret all of them.”

“I do, Your Highness…but I must find the tokens that were taken from my bag, so I can place them before you in evidence of my worthiness. Will you give me leave to seek for them?”

“That isn’t necessary, my son.”

“Please, Sir!”

He nodded gravely. I was already shoveling all those shameful things back into my bag. Someone had removed the true tokens to embarrass me, but I would find them out, retrieve the tokens, and place them before the King as I’d intended.

I suspect someone in my own province is responsible for this evil deed, so I will return home and take as long as necessary to put things back in order. Next time, I will guard my tokens with greater vigilance. The next audience will be different.

Should we be afraid of Michigan’s waters?

Should we be afraid of Michigan’s waters? Lead and copper, toxic algae, polyfluoroalkyl (PFAS), cryptosporidium, the next grim chemical to be discovered in our water: how concerned (afraid) should we be? The consensus seems to be very afraid.

 

Today’s technology allows us to detect chemicals at increasingly lower amounts. In the 1960s, we identified pollutants in parts per million—that’s one tiny grain of sand in a 1 foot by 1 foot by 1 foot high sandhill. Today, we identify many chemicals in parts per billion—one grain in a 10 foot by 10 foot by 10 foot high sandhill, or in parts per trillion—one grain in a 100 foot by 100 foot by 100 foot high sandhill. Some chemicals can even by detected in parts per quadrillion. This means we can now “see” chemicals in our water that were once “invisible”.

 

Just because we can “see” a chemical—one grain in a billion or trillion—doesn’t mean it’s dangerous, that we should be afraid. Though zero is a useful number in mathematics, in the physical/natural world, zero is unattainable. So what questions should we ask if something is detected (“seen”)? Is it a chemical of concern, or grave concern? Is there more than the regulated amount? Is there more than the amount that can cause problems with repeated exposure—not just a sip here or there? Does the amount pose an imminent danger (a chemical spill)? Unless the “seen” chemical is subjected to these questions, we could be afraid for no rational, evidence-based reason. Without asking such questions, everything becomes a crisis, and when everything is a crisis, it’s hard to focus on what’s important.

 

Home and workplace water treatment technologies have advanced rapidly, so a problem at the water source needn’t mean a problem at the tap, even if the water treatment plant isn’t equipped to handle it. As for the big picture, human health and wildlife protection, Michigan’s waters are cleaner than they’ve been in over 100 years. Just because we can “see” more chemicals in our water doesn’t mean water quality is deteriorating, or we’re in danger. With rare exceptions, exposure to Michigan’s waters poses far less risk than driving a car, smoking tobacco or pot, bicycling, extreme sports, tattoos, prescription medications, or being sexually active.

 

Shall we rely on consensus, or the evidence? It’s good to be concerned about Michigan’s water quality, but we need not be afraid.