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July 25, 2005

The Race: Conflict vs. Harmony

My argument is this . . .

There is a race between the mostly constructive powers of voluntary human action, and the mostly destructive powers of coercive governmental constraint, because coercive actions tend to create conflicts, while voluntary actions tend to harmonize.

There are many reasons for this, and not all can be examined here, but one of the most significant is this . . .

Human ignorance will always be vastly greater than human knowledge, no matter how much knowledge increases. It is a simple fact. Reality is much larger than we are, and we can never absorb and contain all of it within our minds. Ignorance is with us always, and this ignorance creates unforeseeable risks and unexpected challenges as new knowledge is discovered. The coercive-constraint-model denies these risks and balks at the changes new knowledge causes, because it wants to IMPOSE order. This goal requires the pretense of greater knowledge than we actually posses. But the voluntary-action-model discovers order by accepting the risks ignorance imposes on us, and by seizing the opportunities new knowledges provides.

The coercive model denies human ignorance, while the voluntary model accepts it.

Coercive conflict

Once upon a time OSHA concocted safety regulations that conflicted with each other. Forklifts had to have beepers so bystanders could hear them backing up. The bystanders had to wear ear plugs to protect themselves from the noise of the forklifts. The earplugs meant that the forklift beepers could not be heard. The two safety measures contradicted each other. The OSHA regulators were ignorant of the true consequences of their policies when they created them. Instead, knowledge of those consequences was discovered by those upon whom the policies were imposed.

Those who discovered these consequences could have acted immediately to compare the advantages of each policy, and choose the one which conferred the most benefit, or they could have innovated to create a way to harmonize the two objectives. But they were constrained in doing so by the coercive policy. There are so many examples of this kind of thing:

  • The government gives money to tobacco farmers, but it also spends money to stamp out smoking.
  • Politicians create tax laws to encourage savings, but then inflate the money supply, lowering interest rates, which encourages borrowing and discourages saving.
  • During the Cold War our government spent billions to resist Communism but spent billions more on agriculture loans and subsidies that propped up Communist governments.
  • Federal tax laws encourage companies to provide “Cadillac” health insurance policies that bid up the cost of health care for both individuals and the government. These higher health care costs then combine with heavy taxation to make health insurance prohibitive for lower wage earners. Governments then step into the breach to provide tax funded health care services, driving up an ever worsening spiral of increased government spending, higher taxes, and higher health care costs.

These kinds of contradictions are built into most coercive policies, even if they do not always fully manifest themselves. Consider this absurdist scenario: If the Drug Enforcement Agency took its mission to its logical conclusion it would result in the complete extermination of many psychoactive plants such as marijuana. This would, of course, conflict with the mission of the Environmental Protection Agency to preserve and protect species.

It would be utopian and incorrect to assert that the voluntary model does not also create contradictions. But it is amazing how often these conflicts and contradictions resolve themselves into harmony.

Voluntary harmony

Scientific innovations aimed at life extension and rejuvenation would seem to threaten a demographic crisis – too many people being born, and too few dying (to put it bluntly and coldly). How will the planet support all these extra people?

The coercive model would seek to design and impose a solution, perhaps by limiting births, or constraining research that would lead to longer, younger, healthier lives. But there are as yet unseen harmonies to be had from the advance of science that will make such coercive measures not only unnecessary, but destructive.

It is well established that people tend to become wealthier the longer they live. It is also obvious that healthier people are also wealthier by virtue of spending less to treat disease. And it is now well-accepted that wealthier people tend to have fewer children. Population growth in developed countries around the world has dropped toward zero. But there’s more to wealth than money, there is also the value of time. If you have more time, because you are living longer, and staying young longer, the incentive will be to delay having children. This has already happened in the wake of the medical advances made to date. Women are now having children in their 40s, and sometimes even their 50s. This trend toward later childbirth should only expand as we stay younger longer, lowering birth rates still further. It will also improve the rearing of children, who will increasingly be born to wealthier and more mature parents.

It is easy to see the advantages of this scenario for the cause of human progress. The experience and knowledge of the parents is retained for a longer time, and their children are raised and educated better, leading to more productive minds. Numerous innovations should result, allowing us to do more-with-less. These more-with-less innovations will allow our longer lived population to place a smaller burden on the planet’s resources.

Such innovations will also lead to other outlets for a longer-lived population. It is unlikely to be the main intention (or any intention at all) of those working to design a space elevator, that it could permanently move large numbers of people off of planet Earth. But that is certainly one possible outcome of a Space Elevator. Cheap access to space would allow the more adventurous among us to settle the planets and live in O’Neil colonies. Living on Earth is certainly not the only option, nor should it be. In a solar system full of life-exterminating asteroids and comets, we would be wise to discontinue keeping all of our “human eggs” in this one “earthly basket.”

But such things cannot be determined in advance. We are too ignorant now to design controls for an uncertain future. But if the past is any guide to the future, we will not remain so ignorant that the solutions to problems will not be found as they are needed. And by the very nature of things, such solutions cannot come from coercive governmental constraint, but must instead come from expansive voluntary human action.

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