Tribute to the Church Fair

The dog days of summer: when July arrives, lawns turn brown, and shade is at a premium. When driving around western Pennsylvania during this time of year, every now and then I come across a neighborhood yard sign or occasional billboard in front of a house of worship promoting the upcoming church fair/carnival. Seeing these signs triggers two simultaneous reactions: the placing of a smile of nostalgia on my face, but also a tinge of melancholy in my mind. Both are for something once special that looks to be increasingly a thing of the past.

What used to be as commonplace as lightning bugs during the summers of my youth in these parts has become a bit of a rarity these days.

Few kids today experience what was once the exciting week when the carnival hit the local parish.  And a multi-year hiatus resulting from the lingering hangover of mandated pandemic shutdowns seems to have not just dealt a death blow to many church carnivals, but perhaps ultimately to many parishes themselves.

That is a shame, because the demise of the church fair mirrors in many ways the erosion of religion, values, and community in America.

Not long ago, church was culture.  Pittsburgh’s neighborhoods and surrounding environs were a mosaic of different ethnicities and creeds.  With each turn at a street corner or summiting of a hill in western Pennsylvania, you would navigate through Slovak, Polish, Italian, African American, Jewish, Greek, Lebanese, and countless other neighborhoods and cultures.  Western Pennsylvania, built by an immigrant class, was the textbook exemplar of a melting pot.

And with each distinct culture came a unique house of worship.  The bricks and mortar of that house became the physical and spiritual centers of gravity for the local community.  Everything revolved around it, including schools, sports, cultural events, and schedules. Infants were born in its shadow, kids were schooled in buildings attached to it, people were married in them, and the deceased were eulogized in services hosted by them.  The house of worship was a reliable provider for the members of the local community from cradle-to-grave, literally.

The celebratory event that brought everyone together once a year was the fair or carnival.

Kids would anxiously mark the week months in advance.  Families would plan vacations to not conflict with the fair.  Extended families would participate in home-away pairings, with cousins from different neighborhoods attending each other’s fairs as hosts/guests.  People took pride and held rivalries within extended families and across communities in the quality of the carnival at their house of worship.

Thus, people in these parts took their neighborhood church’s fair as a serious endeavor.

Resurrection Parish’s SummerFest 2022 (took place June 20-25).

You didn’t volunteer to lead the planning and organization of the carnival or fair; instead, you were selected by earning your way to the spot over years of competently rising through the hierarchy.  In many instances, sons and daughters performed the menial tasks within the team that their fathers and mothers did when they were younger.  Those at the top of the ladder usually were not there by accident.  Strangely, a nonprofit institution had a way of instilling a highly effective meritocracy when event reputation and money were on the line.

Perpetual Planning

Planning for the week of festivities was a perpetual process without end; as soon as the tents and rides were packed and shipped away, the leadership committee was off planning next year’s event.  That’s because the fair or carnival was a crucial piece of the financial viability of the church.  The proceeds funded the schools, paid for the capital improvements to the buildings, and underwrote many of the outreach programs for the local infirmed and poor.  With so much at stake, the house of worship applied a continuous improvement methodology that would rival the best practices found in the hospitality industry.  Overall event quality was the best guarantor of financial success.

Weather was an uncontrollable, yet critical, factor in the ultimate outcome of the year’s event.  A dry and rainless week virtually guaranteed a financial success, whereas dreaded rain would severely impair the financial proceeds.  The church fair taught you at a young age that events outside of your direct control could have an outsized impact on you and your tribe.  Weather was one of life’s ‘known-unknowns.’

Food: The Soul of the Fair

Every event was sure to offer the standards, such as hot dogs and pizza.  But then the ethnic nature of each church took over to offer custom items on the menu: pierogies at the Polish church, pastas at the Italian church, stuffed grape leaves at the Lebanese church, and so on.

Like those who planned, set up, and ran the event, the cooks and bakers for the fair were selected through merit; being a food contributor to the church carnival was a huge source of pride for the cook.  Some of the best food I ever had the pleasure of enjoying was at various Pittsburgh church fairs through the years.

The Ironic Reality of the Church Fair

The carnival taught every kid a new life skill:  how to gamble (and why you want to avoid it).  Games of chance were the biggest money maker for the event.  And the games were clinically designed to methodically procure income from young kids and adolescents.

Little kids would spend allowances saved up all summer to try to win that stuffed animal at the ring toss.  Teenagers would throw dollar bill-after-dollar bill earned from cutting lawns, babysitting, or delivering papers down on the table at the booth where the chuck-a-luck birdcages were rolling the dice.  Many young gamblers learned valuable lessons: the house always wins, you should quit when you are ahead (or not start at all), and the true meaning of ‘gambling is a regressive tax.’  The church had no problem profiting from its sin tax on the younger parishioners, and senior citizens parked at the bingo tables were also fair game.

The Rides

Most fairs had rides for the kids.  They were not amusement park-caliber rides, but they got the job done, especially for the youngest of attendees.  A little duct tape here and there, some leaking fluids at certain spots, and maybe not up to current day regulatory standards.  But the rides put a lot of smiles on little kids faces, and happy kids usually means happy parents, which leads to higher attendance and longer stays.

But That Was Then – Today is Different

Church fairs and carnivals are not as commonplace these days.  Heck, churches are not as commonplace or as well-attended.

I see those signs announcing the upcoming event and think back to my days of youth running around the streets of Pittsburgh and western Pennsylvania to all those different carnivals and churches.  I remember them all and miss them more than ever.

What do I remember? The best ride was the Ferris wheel at the St. Mary of the Mount fair on Grandview Avenue in Mount Washington, which offered a million-dollar view at night for a $0.50 ticket.  The most fun was at the Resurrection parish fair in Brookline, where my brother and I would be invited to attend with our cousins.  The best prize I ever secured was a glow-in-the-dark Star Wars movie poster, which adorned my bedroom wall for a couple of years.  The best food…is impossible to say, like picking a favorite child.  You love it/them all.

Long Live the Church Fair

Organized religions offer a mixed legacy, and many people are skeptical of them (author included). Yet this nation could regain much by refocusing on the values that the church fair and carnival epitomized.  Our local communities and national psyche need those values more than ever.

 

Unsustainable: American K-12 Public Education

The quality of an American public education has been steadily eroding for years. Today, many school districts are graduating children without basic proficiency in reading, writing, math, and science. These kids enter the job market and real world unprepared and unarmed. Meanwhile, spending on K-12 public education has skyrocketed.

Taxpayers pour money into an education system that produces increasingly disappointing results. Amazingly, the embarrassing failures in public education are used as justification to throw more taxpayer dollars at special interests creating the problems.

In a world where everyone marches to the drumbeat of sustainability, our public education system has sunk into a quagmire of unsustainability.

What are this crisis’ problems, root causes, and solutions? Although the situation is complex, the major drivers are quite simple. Covid and the self-induced shutdown of our schools exacerbated and exposed these drivers for all to see, making them more obvious. Ignoring them surrenders our kids’ futures.

Stakeholders and Their Interests

To properly understand the problems and root causes, and to identify solutions, understanding the stakeholders is key. They are:

  • Students, parents, and taxpayers. These are, in theory, the public education system’s customers. Kids need to be taught basic skills, parents desire good outcomes for their children’s education, and taxpayers pay for all of it. If our public education system fails, all three lose.
  • Good educators. Motivated teachers are one of the most powerful assets in a free market economy, providing a multiplier effect on value creation as they develop productive doers. Great instructors deserve and want recognized through merit pay and professional advancement.
  • Bad educators. Like any professional occupation, there are both good- and poor-performing teachers. A poor performer not interested in improving seeks to continue collecting a paycheck and wants to avoid accountability.
  • Teachers’ unions. Public unions, unlike private sector unions, should be viewed with skepticism since collective bargaining and strikes harm the citizenry that the government worker pledged to protect. The public union is most interested in preserving and growing its power, in the form of increasing dues and membership. Rewarding great educators, classroom meritocracy, and academic proficiency are secondary considerations. That’s why studies struggle to find a correlation between teacher unionization and improved student outcomes.
  • School administrators. Administrators, conceptually, sit in between the teachers’ union, teachers, and customers (students, parents, and taxpayers) to create balance and a quality education. Instead, administrators often focus on using bureaucracy to justify more influence, grow staffing, and increase budgets.
  • Politicians. Public officials are elected by the customers of the public education system: parents and taxpayers. But politicians often fail to serve those who they supposedly answer to. Instead, politicians are increasingly influenced by what their true bosses, public unions, demand from them: a system that shrouds transparency, shirks accountability, is fed more money, and limits customer choice.

The Problems

You can’t identify root causes until you recognize the problems. Unfortunately, the problems are obvious and serious.

  • Increasing and alarming numbers of kids are matriculating through public schools despite lack of basic proficiency in reading, writing, math, and science. Schools are failing in their most fundamental duty: to teach students.
  • Urban and rural school districts are especially susceptible to not fulfilling their duty to students. That means the poorest and most economically disadvantaged communities suffer the most severe consequences.
  • Teachers’ unions secure work rules where teachers are all treated the same, as if they were a commodity instead of a profession.
  • The best educators are not recognized nor compensated fairly.
  • It is far too easy for poor performing teachers to skirt accountability, with the system allowing them to remain entrenched for decades.
  • School choice options for parents and students are too limited, particularly in poor performing school districts.
  • Teachers’ unions willingly use threat of strike to disrupt learning and students’ educational paths, if it helps secure more money for pensions, adding of non-teaching staff, and more favorable work rules.
  • Too small of a fraction of each dollar poured into public school districts ends up in the pockets of active teachers or to hire more teachers.

The Root Causes

What are the root causes of these major problems?

  • Community-wide problems, such as lack of economic inclusion, often adversely influence public education outcomes and student proficiency. Solving such problems is beyond the scope of this discussion, and we touched upon some of them in a prior commentary [Teens and Avoiding Poverty: Three Simple Yet Challenging Rules]. Yet addressing the other root causes below will place families and school districts in our more challenged urban and rural communities in better position to succeed.
  • Public unions, including teachers’ unions, pose a massive, cyclical conflict of interest. Teachers’ unions collect dues from member teachers, the unions use dues to fund the political campaigns of politicians (legislators and elected judges) in their districts, the elected politicians then appoint administrators to manage school districts, and collective bargaining agreements are negotiated by the trio of teachers’ union-administrators-politicians that favor the teachers’ union priorities over those of students, parents, and taxpayers. Repeat for the next contract and election cycles.
  • Teachers’ unions exist without any current teacher ever having voted to form the union in the first place. Only one percent of teachers in Florida’s ten largest school districts were on the job when those districts voted to unionize. The New York City public school system teachers’ union, the United Federation of Teachers, was created in 1960, meaning no one out of the over 100,000 current teachers in the union ever voted to create it. Most public school teachers had a union forced on them from day one of their careers. This is institutionalized conscription of public schoolteachers, districts, and the students they serve in the form of a perpetual public union.
  • Most collective bargaining agreements impose a system whereby marginal teachers can continue teaching without improvement for decades and excellent teachers enjoy little upside in the form of professional advancement and pay. Frustrated parents and exceptional teachers may feel as if the system was designed to protect the poor teacher.
  • The teachers’ union top priority is securing more dues and higher membership. Student proficiency, school choice, and teacher accountability are distant, secondary concerns. When there is conflict between the top priority and lesser priorities, the teachers’ union will choose the former at the expense of the latter. That’s a big reason why students who matriculate the full twelve years through a school district with mandatory collective bargaining end up on average earning less, having jobs requiring lower skills, and being more likely to be unemployed than fellow students in school districts who did not have statutorily mandated collective bargaining.
  • A growing share of “investment” in education is allocated under collective bargaining agreements to fund underwater and out-of-market pensions for retirees and to grow staffing of non-teaching personnel. The rate of increase is alarming: over 14% of education spending in 2018 was to cover pension costs, compared to only 7.5% in 2001. The Los Angeles Unified School District has seen pension costs more than double since 2014. In West Virginia, student enrollment fell 12% from 1992 to 2014 as non-teaching staff increased 10%, and in Kentucky over the same period non-teaching staff grew over six times as fast as student enrollment.

Solutions to Make the Unsustainable Sustainable

The K-12 public education system is unsustainable and in terminal decline. Yet a few simple reforms would drastically improve the situation for students, parents, taxpayers, and great educators.

  • States should enact statutes that require teachers’ unions to stand periodically for recertification, allowing active teachers to make their own decisions as to whether they desire union representation.
  • Politicians and administrators should prioritize within school district budgets active teacher salaries and student-teacher ratios (meaning new teacher hires) over pensions, retiree healthcare, and hiring of non-teaching staff.
  • Collective bargaining agreements and administrators must clearly define measurable performance criteria for student proficiency levels in reading, writing, math, and science. If those proficiency levels are not met, it should trigger preestablished corrective actions to ensure accountability and to protect students.
  • A true meritocracy should be instituted when setting teacher merit increases, promotions, and advancement opportunities. The best teacher in a school should earn substantially more than the poorest performer. The best should advance to more responsibility and opportunity while the worst should be considered for removal in lieu of improvement.
  • School choice should be encouraged via policy and be an option for students and parents, particularly in school districts that post poor student proficiency levels. If public education is not serving the customers with the quality product that the customer paid for, the customers should be free to take their business elsewhere.

Although these simple reforms would drastically improve the lives of countless children, accomplishing the reforms will require long, brutal campaigns on a state-by-state and school district-by-school district basis.

Yet we would be hard-pressed to find a more worthy fight.

Medical Malpractice Claims the Hippocratic Oath: Part Two

While the medical journal community lectures on climate change, a complex subject it has no expertise in, it ignores crises affecting the health and welfare of society’s most vulnerable.

Big Tech’s Business Model of Teen Addiction    

Big Tech is making society dumber by the day and the numbers prove it:  Spotify reported the most popular rendition of Beethoven’s fifth symphony has been streamed 1.5 million times; compare that to Olivia Rodrigo’s hit Driver’s License being streamed 800 million times—in less than six months!

Worse yet, the business of social media hinges on making it addictive, particularly to young adults and kids. Most realize that, and savvy docs especially should.  The average American adult now spends over two hours a day on social media, and they don’t come away enriched or feeling better about themselves.  Avid social media users become more addicted and suffer compounding physical and mental health maladies.

The Facebook whistleblower told us what we already know:  the tech giant does not have our best interests in mind and looks to hook and draw us in to grow revenue and stock price.  Its business comes before the customers’ health and wellbeing.

What should doctors be more worried about today when it comes to teens and kids?  What Instagram is doing—by design—to their mental health and self-esteem?  Or what a colorless, odorless benign gas will increase to on a parts-per-million trace level in the atmosphere over the next century?

Broken Big City Public Education Systems

The public education system in America’s largest urban areas is broken, incapable of arming students with competency in reading and math, and condemns millions of poor and minority students to a life of unfilled potential.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress ranks the nation’s public schools in proficiencies for subjects such as math and English, as well as for different grades and demographics.  You can find scorecards for the big city school districts under the Trial Urban District Assessment.

The results for 2019 across 27 of our largest big-city school districts are an outrage.  Not a single city of the group could say that a majority of its black 8th-grade students were proficient in math or reading.  Not math and reading; math or reading.  By way of example, New York City’s public schools posted an embarrassing 10 percent math proficiency and 14 percent English proficiency for black 8th graders.

More shocking are the abysmal results of the best cities of the twenty-seven.  Charlotte: 24 percent black 8th grader proficiency in math—tops across the cities. Boston: 20 percent black 8th grader proficiency in reading—first place in the group.

This should be a national outrage, particularly considering the importance of the need to address racial inequality.  Unwillingness to demand good proficiency in math, science, reading, and English for minority students in big-city schools is a grave failure of heart and destroys their potential for acquiring decent quality of life.

The medical profession is guilty of such a failure.

These writers deflect from the real health and welfare issues on the underserved, such as our broken urban public education system, and instead distract with abstract procrastinations on future climate.

American Mobility Grinds to a Halt

In Atlanta, home prices are up 23 percent year-on-year while incomes are up only 3 percent.

The U.S. housing market has become so prohibitively expensive that it is suffocating upward mobility and economic inclusion.

Skyrocketing home prices and plummeting affordability are fueled by flawed government policies, including regulations in the name of ‘tackling climate change’ and ‘sustainability.’

The math is simple.  In Atlanta, home prices are up 23 percent year-on-year while incomes are up only 3 percent.  Potential homeowners lose, big time.  Nationally, the median American household assigns over 32 percent of its income to cover the mortgage, the highest level since late 2008 (and we know what happened in 2008).

And less affordable housing brought on by harmful environmental policies is killing economic mobility, the crucial attribute that allowed Americans since there was an America to get ahead: New England colonists moved to the western frontiers of Appalachia; poor European immigrants came to the cities and their kids to the suburbs; freed slaves after the Civil War headed north; Oklahomans escaped the Dust Bowl and chased the California dream.

Today a similar path for the working poor does not exist.  Mobility is down a third since 2007.  Why?  Because the rich and well-to-do in desired regions or cities made their property more valuable by creating scarcity through onerous regulations, many under cover of saving the planet.  That denies others the chance to move up a rung or two on the economic ladder by utilizing mobility.  The rich’s assets get inflated while the rest stay stuck on their prescribed rung.

Plummeting home affordability and the subsequent frozen economic mobility takes a cumulative toll on the health and wellbeing of working families. The damage will be measured in lower life expectancies, increased stress-related illnesses, and other medical and quality of life problems.

Where’s the medical profession’s editorial on this current and tangible threat induced by flawed policy falsely touted as being environmentally-just?  You won’t find it.  Instead, the medical profession calls to give the same governments that killed homeownership and economic mobility even greater control, this time to save the planet.

Great Harm and Widespread Injustice

Through the Hippocratic Oath, the Greeks paved the path from the mystical to the scientific for the medical profession.  The foundational rule of ‘do no harm or injustice’ has been disrespected by the editors of today’s medical journals and their misguided musings.  What they call for will do great harm and impose widespread injustice.

Instead of the leaders of the medical community distracting the profession by chasing issues they know little about, society should demand they refocus their energy and attention on finding the cures for Covid, cancer, dementia, and autism.

Leave embracing of the Left, extreme environmentalism, and climate change zealotry to the fringes of nonproductive society, where they belong.

Understanding Today’s Left Through Berlin’s Two Concepts of Liberty

Today, the Left runs rampant through the corridors of government, academia, and treasured institutions.  It tramples over the individual and our Constitutional norms.  How did we get here?  The cautionary roadmap of the dubious journey was laid out decades ago by the great British philosopher Isaiah Berlin.  The path is best understood by Berlin’s two dueling concepts of liberty: negative liberty and positive liberty.

Berlin’s essay on the two competing types of liberty was delivered in a lecture at Oxford in 1958.1  Ironically, Berlin lamented during his prime how social and political thought in western democracies had fallen upon evil days.  He noted the alarming ease of how a professor’s abstract philosophical concepts would be weaponized by those looking to force rigid and life-stifling doctrines upon the masses.  Berlin had no idea how much worse things would get and would be shocked at today’s strict ideological environment that shackles the individual.

The Virtue of Negative Liberty

Negative liberty is the absence of obstacles, barriers, or constraints external to the individual. The person is free to choose their own way for their own good without obstruction from others.  They might make it big or fail miserably; but the doors in life are open to their choosing.  The individual is not dictated to and is left alone.

In Berlin’s words, we use the negative concept of liberty in attempting to answer the question: ‘What activities or areas should a person or group be left alone to do, without interference by others?’  Think of negative liberty as the absence of something: the something being external factors that will impede the person.  Negative liberty correlates to strong individual rights.

Negative liberty equates to the belief that it is better for a person to fail through their own volition than to succeed due to another’s benevolent control.  A person’s wishes are not to be frustrated by government.  Instead, they are to be respected.

The Opiate of Positive Liberty

Positive liberty is someone or something acting to take control of the individual’s life and to help realize the individual’s purpose.  We use the positive concept of liberty in attempting to answer the question of: ‘What or who may control or interference with someone to get them to do (or be) this rather than that?’

Think of positive liberty as requiring the presence of something: the ability to make the right decisions for oneself. Something or someone must act external to the individual to put the individual in a better position to make good choices.  Positive liberty often justifies external agents, such as government, to impose conditions to assist the individual in making good choices.  Coercion is almost a certainty with application of positive liberty.  The elimination of free will is the collateral consequence associated with the tactics used to apply positive liberty theory.

While negative liberty is attributed to individual agents, positive liberty is often attributed to collectivism or big government.  Someone or something must decide what is best for the individual and to place them on the right preordained path, whether it be a benevolent authority or an oppressive one.  People don’t know what is good for them; it is up to the state, bureaucrat, or despot to decide what is best for them.

But forcing or coercing an individual to conform their life to the view of another is a moral failing.  Thus, so too is positive liberty theory.  Immanuel Kant established the concept of ‘nobody can compel me to be happy in his own way’ and observed that paternalism is “the greatest despotism imaginable.”2

The Ebb and Flow of Negative and Positive Liberty

As Berlin showed, negative and positive liberty are not merely two distinct kinds of liberty; they can be seen as rival, incompatible interpretations of a single political ideal.  The more society embraces of one, the less it has of the other and vice versa.  To a large extent, negative and positive liberties are mutually exclusive to one another.

Ideally, society looks to strike the right balance between negative and positive liberty.  A critical mass of individual liberty must remain free from societal control and failure to do so equates to despotism.  Individuals strive to maximize freedom, yet most realize one must surrender some liberty to society to save the rest.  But if too much liberty is surrendered, we reach a point where there is nothing remaining to preserve.

The ideal society will look to maximize the amount of negative liberty and apply only the minimum amount of positive liberty to address the most pressing issues or emergencies.  That was the foundational premise of the United States.  Our Constitution was designed to permanently safeguard individual rights via negative liberty principles from the changing whims of the majority or the inevitable temptations of those in government.

Wars and revolutions are fought to establish and preserve negative liberty.  The human condition yearns for independence.  Yet people tend to let their guards down and can become complacent during good times, providing windows of opportunity for the entrenched bureaucracy and ambitious politicians to commandeer positive liberty theory to increase control over the citizenry.

Negative and positive liberty wage a battle of balance over time, particularly in chaotic democracies and other popular forms of government.  A negative liberty-laden society is created through political/societal disruption.  Followed by a slow yet steady evolution to more state control under cover of positive liberty theory.  To the point where authoritarianism reaches critical mass. And then the cycle repeats itself with a new disruption in response to an unbearable environment for the individual.

The Left’s Power Grab Via Positive Liberty Doctrine

Positive liberty doctrine has been utilized through the years by dictators, socialists, and communists to justify coercion of the individual and suppression of society.  The pitch was tempting, particularly during trying times: ‘The government, leader, or state is here to help you become a better you:  there are things beyond your control that hold you back and government will fix that. Give up your negative liberty and everything will work out to your liking.’

Over the past century, Germany and Spain (fascism) along with Russia and China (communism) jumped headfirst into embracing positive liberty and the shunning of negative liberty.  The results have been, and continue to be, devastating to individual rights, minorities, and quality of life.

The United States, which valued negative liberty and the rights of individuals to act on their own accord, served as the shining light inspiration and primary bulwark against Hitler’s Germany, the Soviet Union, and now communist China. Yet ironically, while America was leading the way, it was also slowly and incrementally slipping toward accepting positive liberty policies and diminishing negative liberty.

The slipping toward positive liberty thinking and away from negative liberty values began with Woodrow Wilson and his trust of the professional bureaucrat to know what is best for Americans.  Further sliding ensued with FDR’s New Deal and LBJ’s Great Society.  President Obama’s eight years took things even further down the scale to where government pervaded all aspects of society and economy.

Each government failure to address a targeted societal ill justified more government.  State failure bred clamoring for more positive liberty via even bigger government.  Meritocracy of the individual was supplanted by mediocrity of the collective.

In 2022 it feels as if the Left has achieved a high-water mark in American exposure to positive liberty tactics.  Individual rights and freedoms are at 200+ year lows.

Three Current Symptoms of the Left’s Application of Positive Liberty

Americans today experience a host of symptoms that betray the prevalence of the Left, big government, and the hollow promises of positive liberty.  Three particularly troubling ones stand out.

First, the Left’s doctrine of equal outcomes supplanting equal opportunity in public education cripples student proficiency and caps an entire generation’s potential.   

Government negates individual achievement at every stage of the educational journey, from preschool through university.  Entrance proficiency exams to determine admission into magnet preschools are scrapped for lotteries.  Homework and grades are dropped in high schools in exchange for the camouflage of sky-high matriculation and graduation rates.  SAT scores are no longer accepted or considered for college admissions. GPA inflation rages at universities while class rankings are no longer tabulated.  The ivory towers went from marketplaces of ideas and nurturers of free thought to the minarets of the intolerant religion of the Left.

The government and the Left tell us such educational approaches are fairer to all and erase institutional systemic biases that hold back individuals from their potential.  Yet the result is the cheating of individual achievement, meritocracy, and standards.  Every student is brought down to the same substandard experience and outcome.  Ultimately, society’s capacity is diminished when it can no longer effectively educate its incoming workforce.

Second, government used the false promise of knowing what course was best to keep the individual healthy and society safe from the Covid pandemic to justify the imposition of drastic policies that severely reduced individual rights and the free economy. 

The past three years of big government’s management of pandemic via coercion has led to economy-wide shutdowns, skyrocketing inflation, supply chain asphyxiation, record national debt, stunted educational development of kids, and reduced wellness of wide demographics.  The individual lost nearly complete control of what they did each day, week, month, and year; from their economic livelihood to their freedom of movement to what goes into their bodies.

The return received in exchange for this surrendering of free will has been grossly disappointing:  over 800,000 American Covid deaths and climbing, endless reactionary flip-flopping on policies, and the clear sense that government leaders are not following science to protect citizens but instead are imposing political science to control citizens.  Pandemic has provided an epic opportunity for the Left to institute positive liberty policy across every facet of American life.  And the Left did not hesitate to do so.

Third, positive liberty doctrine has been applied lavishly to justify the gamut of climate change policies. 

Climate change ideology is the ideal long-term opportunity for the Left to permanently impose positive liberty doctrine across society and to squelch individual/negative liberty.  That’s because energy is used by everyone and impacts everything; control energy and you control the individual, the economy, and society.  Just listen to the common rhetorical climate musings from the Left and their implied messages:

‘Climate change is the existential threat facing the world today.’ Translation: we must place society on the right track. ‘Climate change is a code red for humanity.’ Translation: we must adjust quickly to reduce the risk.  ‘The time to act is now.’ Translation: we must impose drastic policies immediately.

The evil genius of the Left is evident with climate change zealotry: convincing a large portion of the population that what atmospheric trace concentrations of carbon dioxide will do in fifty years warrants an immediate surrendering of negative liberty and individual rights.

Using Berlin’s Warning from the Cold War to Win the Current Ideology War

If you like being in control of your own destiny, if you own a business, if you want a promising future for your kids, if you believe in science and reason, and if you love your country, then heed Berlin’s teachings on the endearing promise of negative liberty and the false hope of positive liberty.  Steadfastly protect the former and be on constant guard against those promoting the latter.  More than you think may be riding on your willingness to do so.

 

References:

1. Isaiah Berlin, Two Concepts of Liberty, An Inaugural Lecture Delivered Before the University of Oxford on 31 October 1958.

2. Immanuel Kant, Perpetual Peace and Other Essays.

How $9.80 Created a Literary Balm for Troubled Times: Revisiting Fahrenheit 451

Today, looking around our great yet troubled country, one can’t help but feel the suppressing force of cancel culture. Watch what you say, keep your thoughts to yourself, and be careful who you talk openly to. And for goodness’ sake, don’t convey appreciation for the great works of the past, whether they be historical (Jefferson or Hamilton), philosophical (Aurelius or Rand), literary (Twain or Orwell), economic (Friedman or von Mises) or scientific (Darwin or Columbus). Such carelessness may land you out of a job, expelled from university, rejected from the neighborhood book club, and vilified on social media.

For the few of us that subscribe to this prudent path yet suffer from a genetic flaw that creates an innate resistance to today’s cancel culture and woke police, we can take solace in a handful of literary masterpieces from the 20th century. At the top stands George Orwell’s 1984 (1949). And there is the prescient Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler (1940), who introduced his observations on intellectual and political tyranny.

As great as those two works are, there is a third that serves as the supreme combination of adventurous storytelling, political commentary, and contemporary relevance. It was written in the early 1950s by its author in the basement of the UCLA library on a public typewriter. A dime bought 30 minutes of typewriter time, and the author ended up investing 98 dimes to produce the original manuscript.

The $9.80 book is Ray Bradbury’s 1953 classic, Fahrenheit 451. If you’ve never read it, do yourself a favor and invest the time to do so. If it’s been a while since you read it, revisiting the story in 2021 will provide a stunning and new perspective for these tumultuous times. The story should bother you, as it pertains to crucially important subjects worth being bothered about.

The story revolves around Gus Montag, a fireman in a future society where the job of firemen is not to save homes from burning, but instead to burn books and the structures (and at times, the people) hiding them. The tools of the trade are vehicles and hoses loaded with kerosine and igniters (451 degrees Fahrenheit is the temperature at which paper burns). The fireman’s credo was best summarized by Montag: “It’s fine work. Monday burn Millay, Wednesday Whitman, Friday Faulkner, burn ‘em to ashes, then burn the ashes. That’s our official slogan.”

The fireman’s rules were simple and sequential: answer the alarm quickly, start the fire swiftly, burn everything, report back to the firehouse, and then be alert for other alarms. Books are viewed as loaded guns that must be destroyed to protect people from thinking.

The government and its minions, including the firemen, get to play the censors, judges, and executioners. Instead of being born free and equal under the Constitution, the aim of the police state is now to make everyone equal.

On its surface, Fahrenheit 451 is a dramatic story about how the individual and his free will overcomes oppression in society and government. That alone would make the book must-read. But there are other, just as impactful, themes in Bradbury’s tale. Consider a few ‘hows’:

  • How media and government feed viewers/citizens shallow content to sedate the mind of the individual. In the book, parlor rooms in homes consist of giant floor-to-ceiling walls covered by video screens that play constant, hollow programming. Sports are offered up as a sedative to keep the masses happy and quiet. Everyone is conditioned to watch and listen, to the point where they stop talking to one another and thinking for themselves. Bradbury was foreshadowing today’s reality shows and giant LED 4k TVs that lower the viewer’s and society’s collective consciousness.
  • How superficial materialism and ‘keeping up with Joneses’ are unfulfilling and demoralizing to the human spirit. Montag’s wife, Mildred, pines for a fourth wall of TVs in their parlor room, even though it would require a third of Montag’s annual pay. Her addiction to the drivel and her desire for yet another screen does not buy her happiness; she tries (unsuccessfully) to commit suicide by consuming a bottle of sleeping pills.
  • How government and technology conspire to create an oppressive surveillance state. Family members are encouraged to rat one another out if books are present, akin to bias reporting tools on today’s university campuses for non-sanctioned views and thoughts. The hound is a technological innovation in the book that tracks and kills its prey, mainly individuals marked for elimination by the state. The hound of today can be found in drones, artificial intelligence, and tracking technology. As Montag’s boss and nemesis said, “Any man’s insane who thinks he can fool the government and us.”
  • How the education system is utilized to eradicate thought and debate and replace it with conscripted indoctrination. In the book, school curriculum is shortened, academic discipline is relaxed, and subjects such as philosophy and history are dropped. Children are removed from their home environment as early as possible in life, so that they can develop in the controlled state-sanctioned environment of the public school. Content focuses exclusively on teaching how to press buttons and pulling switches, never on how to think. Looking around at our public education system and colleges today, you get the feeling academia stole the playbook from Bradbury’s world.
  • How the ‘tyranny of the majority’ will drive an open society without protections for the minority into an oppressive one. Fahrenheit 451 reminds us that calcification to the majority (or, for that matter, the ability of the minority to stamp out thought) is an enemy of truth, the individual, and reason. Today, it is what we call ‘cancel culture,’ except it is now a majority of the minority of elites who decide for the masses what is truth and reason.
  • How society is broken down into two categories: those who build and those who burn. Montag lived in a society where the makers (builder/thinker/doer) were dulled and overcome by the takers (bureaucrat/thought police/administrator). Today’s administrative state in government, the academic complex, and key special interests are steadily subsuming those who create, enable, and serve free enterprise and value creation. Might we be much closer to Montag’s time than we realize?

Although Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451 for America in the 1950s, he succeeded in providing us a piercing reminder of the need to safeguard freedoms in 2021. A wise character in the book, Faber, listed three essential reasons why books are important. First, quality books present imperfections and blemishes that mimic life, at times making books feared. Second, good books extract leisure time to induce the reader to think. And third, great books inspire and catalyze action.

Fahrenheit 451 scores on all three of Faber’s essential reasons. We should be grateful that Ray Bradbury invested 98 dimes in the UCLA library basement and his time to express his passion for literature and individual freedom. The rate of return on that investment is incalculable.