Sunday, April 20, 2008

Free to Choose

I have often stated my admiration for Thomas Sowell. I have finally gone back to one of his sources, the great Milton Friedman, and started reading his most popular work, Free to Choose. I was first told about this book, actually something of a transcript of a ten part video series he did for Public Broadcasting in 1980, by a friend when I was talking up the work of Sowell. Here are a few excerpts:

The key insight of Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations is misleadingly simple: if an exchange between two parties is voluntary, it will not take place unless both believe they will benefit from it. Most economic fallacies derive from the neglect of this simple insight, from the tendency to assume that there is a fixed pie, that one party can gain only at the expense of another.

Prices perform three functions in organizing economic activity: first, they transmit information; second, they provide an incentive to adopt those methods of production that are least costly and thereby use available resources for the most highly valued purposes; third, they determine who gets how much of the product--the distribution of income.

A myth has grown up about the United States that paint the nineteenth century as the era of the robber baron, of rugged, unrestrained individualism. Heartless monopoly capitalists allegedly exploited the poor, encouraged immigration, and then fleeced the immigrants unmercifully. Wall Street is pictured as conning Main Street, as bleeding the sturdy farmers in the Middle West, who survived despite the widespread distress and misery inflicted on them. The reality was very different. Immigrants kept coming. The early ones might have been fooled, but it is inconceivable that millions kept coming to the United States decade after decade to be exploited. They came because the hopes of those who had preceded them were largely realized. The streets of New York were not paved with gold, but hard work, thrift, and enterprise brought rewards that were not even imaginable in the Old World.

Another fallacy seldom contradicted is that exports are good, imports bad. The truth is very different. We cannot eat, wear, or enjoy the goods we send abroad. We eat bananas from Central America, wear Italian shoes, drive German automobiles, and enjoy programs we see on our Japanese TV sets. Our gain from foreign trade is what we import. Exports are the price we pay to get imports. As Adam Smith saw so clearly, the citizens of a nation benefit from getting as large a volume of imports as possible in return for its exports, or equivalently, from exporting as little as possible to pay for its imports.

The more of economics I read, the more I realize that virtually no one in the press, political commentary, and especially politics itself knows anything about its reality.

Saturday, April 19, 2008


I just came home from watching Ben Stein's new documentary "Expelled." You might remember Stein from his performance in the 80s teen movie Ferris Bueler's Day Off as the dead-pan teacher asking hopelessly, "anyone? anyone?," or his TV game show on the Comedy Central channel, Ben Stein's Money, or his commentaries on the TV show Sunday Morning. In Expelled Stein examines the ideological stranglehold that the established scientific and academic communities have in deciding orthodoxy with regard to Darwinist evolution to the absolute exclusion of the incipient Intelligent Design movement. The previous sentence implies a dry sort of clinical approach, but Stein's demeanor, and especially the director's adroit use of inter-cut clips from old black and white films--quite a few of which seem to be 50s era grade school instructionals--give the movie real, at times laugh-out-loud, humor.

Stein interviews many leading lights in the Intelligent Design movement, as well as its most ardent detractors: Dennet, Hitchens, Dawkins and Eugenie Scott, head of an organization whose whole existence is devoted to excluding Intelligent Design from the American classroom and preserving Dawinism as educational dogma, the National Center For Science Education.

Perhaps his primary focus, however, is with interviewing scientists, academics,and even journalists who have been ostracized, ridiculed, denied tenure, fired and then blacklisted for the mere passing mention of the possible validity of Intelligent Design.

There is, as well, a fascinating, if disturbing and all too short, examination of the darkest historical consequences of Dawinism: the Eugenics movement in the United States in which, after the tireless lobbying of Margaret Sanger (founder of Planned Parenthood) many thousands of retarded Americans were forcibly sterilized, and in Nazi Germany 70,000 retarded, genetically handicapped, or people otherwise deemed by the state as "useless eaters" were gassed and cremated in the interest of strengthening humanity.

The film is capped off by an interview with Richard Dawkins that proves squirm-inducing with embarrassing humor when this most caustic and vituperative voice in opposition to all things God--author of The God Delusion in which he asserts that religious instruction of children is a form of child abuse and should be made illegal--finally admits that Intelligent Design might eventually prove to be true, but only if the intelligent designer turns out to be--(I'm not kidding)--an advanced extra-terrestrial race who must have itself derived from the non-determinate forces of natural selection (Dawinism).

I was thrilled at this movie because it's something I've never seen before: a film with nationwide release with excellent production values, humor and skill, from a conservative and monotheistic viewpoint. I want to see more films like this. Many, many more. With that in mind I'm encouraging all my friends, acquaintances, and anyone else whose ear I can get, to go see this film. Don't wait for it to come out on video. If everyone does that it will ensure that any similar future projects will only be released on video. The way to support good art, the way to encourage more good art, is to buy it.