A New Year's Thought: Let's Focus On What's Important

Happy New Year to all from the Manhattan Contrarian!

And for the new year, I'm going to rededicate myself to focusing on what is important in the world and therefore on identifying the side issues for what they are.   Somehow in America we have become so successful at solving some of our major problems that we have lost track of our great accomplishments and are even putting the big accomplishments at risk as we turn our focus to much less important issues.

For example, what is the single most important problem that the world faces?  I nominate the problem of human violence and warfare.  The history of the world is a history of endless warfare, with people forming themselves into groups on tribal, ethnic, language, ideological or religious lines, and having aggressive young males form armies to kill as many members of the other groups as possible and seize their lands.  What is called "history" going back more than a couple of hundred years is about literally nothing but such warfare; and even in recent decades plenty of it remains.  The European countries continued their endless wars to take territory from and kill their neighbors right up to 1945.  In most recent memory, think of inter-tribal violence in places like Nigeria, Liberia, Rwanda, and the Congo; of the ongoing tribal/religious fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan; and of the recent government overthrowings in Arab countries like Egypt and Libya.  

What conditions enable people to live in peace without the endless violence and warfare that have plagued humanity throughout history?  Actually, here in what is sometimes called the "first world," we seem to have the problem substantially licked.  The solution is capitalism.  Sometimes that system goes by the name of "private property and the rule of law." Under a capitalist system the aggressive young males have an alternative to forming armies and killing enemies, namely, they can go into the rough-and-tumble world of business and take out their aggressions by seeking to have more success and make more money than their rivals.  (For these purposes, professional sports are an example of business.)  Meanwhile, wealth is created and most people rise out of poverty in a way never previously possible.  The reduction of warfare and increase of wealth creation are tremendous triumphs of capitalism, most of this occurring in the past few hundred years at most. 

Look at the places where organized violence persists on a large scale and you will see that what they lack is the opportunity for young men to go into business and succeed.   Many sub-Saharan African countries have little functioning capitalist economy.  Same for Afghanistan.  Iraq?  The state controls all the oil and most other business, and 20% or more of the young men are unemployed with no real opportunity to form a business that can succeed.  So let's form ISIS and see if we can seize some oil and kill some enemies!  Investigate the other unstable Arab countries that have gone through recent revolutions and you find the same thing again and again: the state controls business, and there are no career opportunities for many young men, who then have lots of time on their hands to go out and commit violence.  Check out this Cato Institute study of the degree to which the state controls business in the Arab world.

But even as organized violence continues wherever capitalism has not taken hold, the trendy view is now that peace and order and wealth are the natural state of things and the important problem is "income inequality."  Certainly this is the perspective of our President, and in New York of our Mayor, not to mention of most of academia and the media.  Can you actually take a functioning capitalist system, impose on it sufficient redistribution by state force to substantially reduce income inequality, make it so that the most ambitious and aggressive young men cannot get meaningfully ahead in life, and yet not undermine the mechanism that brought about the peace, order and wealth in the first place?  Among those advocating "income inequality" as the "defining challenge of our time," I don't notice any recognition or discussion of this issue.

The European countries are often held up as examples of how to achieve lower levels of income inequality than we have here in the U.S.  Take France, for example, which has large communities of immigrants, mostly Muslim, living on state handouts with high levels of unemployment for the young men.  Any problem with that?  Riots among unemployed young men in France have not gotten much play in U.S. press since the big ones in the Paris suburbs in 2007; but there have been plenty more of same, for example in the city of Amiens in 2012, and even more recently in Marseille.   Similar riots have even hit places as seemingly tranquil as Sweden in the past year.

And that's just one example.  Many times potential goals are in conflict and we have to pick one over the other.  As another example, which is more important, that the average world temperature might go up by one degree, or that a billion or so people lack electricity and the cheapest way to provide it is by burning fossil fuels?  Somehow our leaders seem to have lost their way in identifying the important, but I promise to work on that in the coming year.