Sunday, October 31, 2010

Jon Stewart is Great. Milton Freidman was Better.

Jon Stewart gave an excellent speech yesterday at his Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear in Washington DC that was a true ode to bipartisanship and a plea for mutual tolerance.

Stewart offers an example that we see every day of cars entering the Lincoln tunnel. Drivers with Obama and NRA stickers, Evangelicals and atheists all work together to allow everyone to safely merge into the tunnel lane and do not simply cut each other off because of their political views. Stewart uses this example correctly to point out that outside of Washington and cable TV people do not live their lives as a political struggle. While I liked what Stewart was saying something was bothering me that I could not immediately put into words. It finally hit me when I realized that Milton Friedman once employed a similar line of argument in regards to the making of pencils.

Friedman pointed out that, within the seemingly simple process of manufacturing pencils, there was a powerful mechanism serving to bring about world peace. The pencil is made up of resources drawn from different parts of the world by people of different languages and creeds, who, left to their own devices, would likely not tolerate each other if they ever met in person. The fact that they are all tied together in the manufacturing process of pencils forces them, even unwittingly to cooperate in the pursuit of a common goal.
Friedman, though, included one thing that Stewart did not, something that, for Friedman, was utterly essential. Stewart never asks why the people driving into the Lincoln tunnel bother to cooperate. Stewart seems to assume that this all happens as if by "magic." This is in keeping with modern liberal thought which assumes that people are naturally good tolerant and, unless corrupted by outside forces (say right wing talk-radio), will cooperate with others for the common good. Friedman knew better; it is the free market that allows us to buy complex devices such as pencils for mere pennies. People learn to stow away their prejudices and embrace tolerance because they do not wish to go broke and have to watch their children starve. Similarly, people learn to "tolerate" the oppositional bumper-stickers of the car in the next lane and do not try to cut that driver off, not out of any innate human goodness, but because it is not worth risking a car that one has paid for out of one's own pocket and the potential medical bills in order to not be few minutes late for something they do not want to be going to in the first place. (One can infer that any attempt on the part of the government to help people buy and insure their cars and offer them healthcare will lead to an increase in "intolerant" driving and accidents. Government aid will get you killed; the free market, like a seatbelt, will save your life.)

Yes this country needs a restoration of sanity as the forces of both the left and the right seek to use physical force to impose their values on others. What is needed is for our societal struggles (whether marriage or healthcare) to be left in the capable hands of the free market.

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