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The Magic of Regression

Hans Rosling recently gave a TED talk on “The Magic of the Washing Machine,” which has since been widely circulated and lauded accordingly. Rosling’s main point is that something as basic as the washing machine can free up countless humans to pursue bigger and better things — family, education, civilization … that sort of thing.

Indeed, if humans are really the “ultimate resource” as Julian Simon suggested, it’s no wonder that the continuous maximization of human time and freedom will lead us toward ever-increasing output.

Yet just as the fruits of industrialization and widespread innovation seem to be evidence of some kind of “magic,” various opposing forces seem intent on demonstrating their own variety of bizarre tricks. Alas, just as society seems to progress, we exhibit a strange tendency toward regress.

Vaccines? We don’t need them. Plus, they kill people!

Pesticides and industrialized farming? It’s all poison! Why can’t we just grow our own food like all those charming peasants of yore?

Global markets? Amazon.com is too close to home. What happened to the good old days when you could just borrow a Magic Bullet from your next-door neighbor?

Clean water? Some people don’t have it, so we should probably skip showers out of solidarity. A little deodorant will do the trick.

Hot dogs? They’re gross (justified). And they probably cause cancer (not).

For some, this comes from valid skepticism; for others, it’s irrational fear. Regardless, it almost always has a politician or government bureaucrat on the other end, licking his lips at a new opportunity for control. The excuses seem endless — the poor, the environment, the children, “fairness.” And heck, maybe some of these folks actually believe what they say. Whatever the case, this is all about control in the end.

As then-candidate Obama famously said: “We can’t drive our SUVs and eat as much as we want and keep our homes on 72 degrees at all times … and then just expect that other countries are going to say OK. That’s not leadership. That’s not going to happen.”

Ah yes: “Leadership.” When all else fails — when our cars are running, our bellies are full, and our houses are warm and cozy — it’s probably time for a little “follow the leader” in reverse. What’s your fancy? 19th-century chimney sweep? Medieval serf? Hunter/gatherer?

Thus, the “leaders” descend, taming and tutoring our views of “progress” through the warm nudge of bureaucratization and mild “motivation.” Why would we ever want to lead others toward pursuing a life that looks forward? Why would we ever want to tell the world that the future can revolve around more than shivering in a shack or washing clothes in the river? Why would we ever want to provide a model of innovation, entrepreneurship, and investment when we could show the Third World that central heat is a bourgeois excess?

Yet sometimes, as we all know, resistance to progress is necessary.

If eugenics and faulted climate-change theories have taught us anything, it’s that we should look at claims of scientific or technological progress with keen skepticism. The countless so-called “innovations” of the past should teach us the value in keeping our “so-called” qualifiers nice and handy. In some sense, that’s what being a conservative is all about.

So how do we progress appropriately? How do we move forward without getting caught up in all the bad stuff?

The answer depends on who decides the future. As Thomas Sowell says, “The most basic question is not what is best, but who shall decide what is best.” On matters of innovation-oriented decisionmaking, the “leaders” have a pretty poor track record (high speed rail, anyone?).

Make no mistake. We will always have error, and we will always have disagreement, particularly in the realm of progress. But when we as individuals truly screw up, the consequences come quickly. When disruption comes, we humans are pretty good at responding and adapting. Nobody likes to look stupid and nobody prefers to be on the “wrong side of progress.” In a society guided by self-interest a la Adam Smith, the invisible hand typically spanks us when we need it, and progress gets back on track accordingly.

Yet when our politicians screw up, there is often no turning back. Even when there is, the consequences are often much too serious to be brushed off as mere downsides to social experimentation. From large-scale government errors based in misguided eugenics (e.g. the Holocaust) to medium-scale errors based in rash environmentalism (e.g. ethanol), we can see the importance of such a distinction quite clearly. These days, such a distinction is even necessary when considering the most basic of our necessities, including Rosling’s beloved washing machine. Whether it’s our light bulbs or laundry detergent or those nasty little hot dogs, the busy-body “leaders” of noble American anti-progress are eager to get their paws on anything you (or your neighbor) don’t like.

Now why would they do such a thing?

Here’s a hunch:

We all press forward because it’s in our own interest to do so. Could it be that government presses backward for similar reasons?

There is a kind of magic in freedom, but institutionalized control can achieve wonders of its own. Them are dark arts, my friends. Beware.