Saturday, March 22, 2008

Attack of the Brain Snatchers

Nearly everytime the State touches people, it makes them act stupid. And if they act stupid long enough, then they can become stupid. This is apparently a law of the universe. It should be in the Bible: "Yea, the King shall toucheth his subjects, and their brains shall falleth plop onto the ground."

Recently I was in a room in which some powder had spilled out of a small package that had come through the mail. The room was in a medical facility, and the package contained prescription medication that had been crunched at the Post Office. The powder was a crushed pill. All of us knew what it was. It didn't matter. We ended up talking to a police officer. I blame this on the feds.

The cop was a nice guy, and pretty bright, but he had a job to do. And that job was asking dumb questions. Here are four of them: "What your eye color? What is your hair color? How tall are you? How much do you weigh?"

In one paranoid flash I discerned the meaning behind his questions: I was in reality a swarthy Arab terrorist masquerading as a blond-haired, blue-eyed American! However, possibly I had forgotten what kind disguise I was wearing, and he was trying to trick me into revealing true identity! Was I wearing my blue contacts, or my green ones? ! Think! Was my hair dyed blond today, or red? Was I wearing built-up shoes? How about my fat suit? Don't look down to check! He'll know what it means! You'll disappear into the nearest FBI office and never come out again!

Every Saturday morning I go to the airport to drop off a package. I have been doing this for a year. I go to the same counter, and see the people. All of them know me, and they know my name.

Last Saturday I was asked for my driver's license. I gave her a skeptical look. I didn't say it, but I was thinking, "Your papers, please?"

"I'm sorry," she apologized, "but there are FAA spies around here, and if they catch me not asking, I'll get fired." Spies? And how is showing her my driver's license going to prevent terrorism? It won't. It's nothing but pretend security.

As I was showing her my license, I could hear the other agents quizzing passengers. "Have your bags been out of your sight? Has anyone tried to give you anything?" Kafka couldn't do any better than this!

When I flashed my license at her, I could tell by the blank look in her eyes she didn't even look at it. I could have had "Osama bin Laden Terrorist Mastermind" printed on it and it would have gotten past her.

My agent asked me for my FAA number. I told her in was in her computer. She told me I had to tell it to her in person. I told her I did not have it memorized or written down, because it was in the computer! She looked sheepish and said she couldn't accept my package unless I could recite the number to her.

So the package never got on the flight. At least I only had to wait line fifteen minutes to be rejected (I got there way ahead of time, before everyone else did). Looking around, I saw lines that I estimate were two hours long. And every person was being asked, "Can I see your license...have your bags...has anyone..." None of this is going to prevent terrorism, not in the slightest.

It's not just the federal government. It's our federalized state governments, too. A few years ago I went to get my driver's license renewed, and was told my license was suspended.

"Why's that?" I asked, puzzled. "I haven't received any notification."

"I don't know," said the woman, peering at my file on her computer .

"How can I find out?"

"You can call the state capitol," she answered.

"It's not on the computer you're looking at?"

"No. But it does say if you give us $20 your the suspension will be lifted."

"I'm expected to cough up $20 even though no one knows why my license is suspended? If it turns out someone has made a mistake, will I get money back?"

I knew the answer before she did: "I don't know."

When I called the state capitol I was told 'a mistake had been made' and the suspension was lifted. They didn't know why my license was suspended, and to this day neither do I. I don't think anyone does. Someone hit the wrong letters on the keyboard, I guess.

And it's local government, too. Once, as a newspaper editor, I sat in in a city council meeting and watched as the members, to shut up glazed-eyed fundamentalist preacher, passed an ordinance outlawing and palm-reading. The city attorney later on old me privately the ordinance was unconstitutional and therefore would not be enforced. Worthless words on paper, and nothing but.

These were not stupid people I was dealing with (in the case of the city council they weren't dumb, just typically politician-sleazy). Yet were all acting stupid, because the State had stuck its tentacles their brains.

In his remarkable little book, Bureaucracy, Ludwig von Mises points out the profound differences between bureaucracies and the free market. Bureaucracies are static, interested in maintaining the status quo (which is one of the hardest-to-change entities in the world), bound by rules, red tape and regulations, and not driven by profit and competition. Following the rules is what matters. It doesn't matter if they're stupid. They're still the rules.

The free market is much more dynamic and much less straight-jacketed red tape. It has to be, because, driven by profit and competition, has to be flexible or else poorly-run businesses will go under.

In nearly each of the cases I dealt with, the people weren't zombies; they were just following the rules. Logically, the more rules we, the less we will use our brains, and, in the long run, the stupid we will become. In an extreme scenario, all we will have is rules, and no brains at all. Thank God Lamarck wasn't right, or else we'd all be devolving into the Epsilon Semi-Morons of Brave New World

One of my friends, who owns a small cab company, has hired quite a few Russian immigrants. "If you want to defeat the Russian army," he told me once, "just kill all the generals. The soldiers will stand around without a clue as to what to do. It's because they spent their lives following stupid rules and standing in line."

Just as Americans are starting to do in airports. And as we have for at the DMV, at Veterans' hospitals, and at most public hospitals. Which we will do at all hospitals and doctors' offices if health is nationalized.

Imagine the entire nation turned into a bureaucracy (think of the movie, Brazil). Red tape, rules, and standing in line for most the day. How about for most of your life? Don't use your brains. There wouldn't be any need to, really; the rules will tell you what to do. The kids coming out of these public, bureaucratic schools would be poorly educated and lack imagination and creativity. They'd be hostile and nihilistic after spending 12 years sitting in chairs in a prison. Imagine the red tape...I certainly am glad that's not happening!

The whole thing reminds me of one of the greatest satires ever filmed, The President's Analyst, starring James Coburn. In one scene he ends up strapped to a couch with a "CEA" agent (played by a very scary Arte Johnson) about to empty a .44 Magnum into his temple.

"Sorry," says the expressionless and robotic Johnson, "but rules are rules," and pulls the trigger several times. Fortunately, his pistol is empty, since he had just blasted all of his bullets into bystander (a Canadian pop star-cum-spy, of all things) who had gotten in his way.

"Valentine," he asks of his creepy little sidekick, "can I borrow your Magnum. 44?"

"Sorry," replies Valentine in a nasty voice, "but you can't. It's against the rules."

Two of the main rules of bureaucracies are "keep your place" and "don't make waves." If you don't do either, you can easily disappear, which is what happens in every country ruled by the bureaucratic State.

It looks as if both George Orwell and Aldous Huxley were right. Orwell was right about foreign policy: "perpetual war for perpetual peace." Huxley was right about domestic policy: a gigantic bureaucracy, with everybody in their place, and do not cause trouble if you know what's good for you.

Actually all bureaucracies are in a quandary. It always is. It needs a certain amount of smart, creative citizens to advance the economy. So we really couldn't all be Epsilon Semi-Morons. But it does want most citizens to be hypnotized sheep who don't question the State's decisions. So it's stuck trying to freeze everything into a permanent stasis, but also keep an intelligent, educated, and dynamic minority. But that minority can't be controlled. Huxley saw this tension very clearly in Brave New World.

The State was supposed to make us all god-like. We were supposed to the Soviet Union's Homo Sovieticus, Communist Cuba's El Nuevo, the Khmer Rouge's "Year Zero." Yet it appears, because of the growth of that beast known as the State, we're toward Homer Simpson.

The answer, obviously, is to move away from the State and bureaucracy and toward freedom. We all can use more polymaths, and we're certainly not going to get them from the government.

Every time I deal with the State, I think, "Better be'll cost you your brains."

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