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The Mother of Tragedy

September 6, 2001

As I was saying the other day, people often make fateful decisions, in political as in private life, without pausing to think of what might go wrong. Much of the misery in the world results from taking irreversible steps hastily on the most optimistic assumptions. As our ancestors used to put it, in their homely way, “Look before you leap.”

Mexico’s new president, Vicente Fox, is urging President Bush to grant amnesty to 3.5 million illegal Mexican immigrants, and he wants the decision made by the end of the year. In the past he was willing to wait four years; now he wants us to leap without looking.

Whoa! There are plenty of arguments both ways, but Fox seems to acknowledge only one side of the case. It behooves us to deliberate. And we ought to be a little suspicious when the advocate of a possibly risky policy doesn’t want to leave time for deliberation. Maybe he’s right, but let’s take our time.

Custom and tradition aren’t infallible guides, but at least they tell us what to expect. Innovations, on the other hand, are radically unpredictable. They always bring unintended consequences, and often baneful ones.

Wars are generally launched by governments that think they can win quick victories. Without the ballast of caution and pessimism, they adopt battle plans that seem like sure things, with blitzkriegs, surgical strikes, and minimal losses.

[Breaker quote: The politics of 
optimism]Even when a war keeps stretching on longer than expected, the hawks think they see the light at the end of the tunnel. The more they invest in wasteful conflicts, the harder they find it to cut their losses and come home. As their original plans are frustrated by events, they switch from fatuous optimism to the fatuous patriotism that says we must “support our boys,” no matter how many of “our boys” may die. Opposing the war becomes disloyalty and treason; admitting that the war was a mistake in the first place, and reversing the initial decision, become well- nigh impossible.

“Experience keeps a dear school,” Benjamin Franklin observed, “but a fool will learn in no other.” Unfortunately, most people flunk even in that costly school. After the history of the twentieth century, you’d think they would be extremely wary of allowing more centralization of power in the state. But the shibboleths of limitless government — “democracy,” “human needs,” “compassion,” “defense,” et cetera — usually disarm prudence.

Sometimes cunning rulers understand that they can rush their people into irreversible decisions. Franklin Roosevelt exploited popular anxieties during the Great Depression to create an unconstitutional national welfare state; he privately boasted that “no damn politician” would ever be able to repeal “my Social Security system.” He was right. It has proved much more difficult to repeal Social Security than to repeal inconvenient parts of the U.S. Constitution.

Later welfare programs, such as Medicare, have proved so hard to undo that even the conservatives who originally opposed them now promise to “save” them. The same pattern has been repeated with the U.S. Department of Education. Judged by constitutional standards, the present U.S. Government is an enormity. Yet restoring constitutional law has become, at least for the time being, a quixotic hope.

Still, the American experience has been positively benign, when compared with the record of Communism. On paper, Communism promised a utopia of equality and social justice; in reality, it produced new states of limitless power and cruelty until it finally collapsed of its own weight, not without doing irreversible and incalculable damage during the seven decades of its sway. Such are the fruits of seeking perfection through politics.

Many people had misgivings about Communism from the outset, yet nobody could predict Lenin, Stalin, and Mao. When things go wrong, they usually far surpass the worst apprehensions of the pessimists. History never follows our blueprints.

Because the future is profoundly unknowable, our best defense against tyranny is often the courage to obey our vaguest premonitions — or to maintain what even the gentle and cheerful G.K. Chesterton called “a healthy bigotry.” Yet we are constantly buffaloed by glib leaders who are confident that they not only know what is going to happen, but can control events. There is no more serious delusion than that. Optimism is the eternal mother of tragedy.

The man who claims he can foresee and direct the future is a fool. The only greater fools are those who trust him enough to give him power.

Joseph Sobran

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Copyright © 2001 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
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