woody zimmermann 120Recently I read the bio of a well-known film actress who is close to my age. Her name would be instantly recognizable if I gave it. Over a span of 25 years she had four marriages, plus several “relationships” – none of them lasting more than eight years. It’s often that way with movie stars, you might say. Possibly so, but I also had colleagues during my 40-year career – none of them film stars – who were in their second and even third marriages. Some should have been wealthy men, but they had been ruined by costly divorce-settlements. Most of my readers probably knew people in similar situations, because serial-marriage isn’t just a Hollywood phenomenon.

Wags long ago called remarriage “the triumph of hope over experience.” The puckish expression means that problems encountered in previous marriages will not necessarily be avoided in a new marriage, no matter how much one hopes they will be. Whatever personal dynamics a person brings to a relationship will probably still be operative, despite the attractiveness of a new spouse and new surroundings. As millions of Americans know very well, the hope that things will turn out differently, the second (or third) time around, might not be realized.

This same hope occurs in other venues, too – often with the same disappointing result. One notable venue is politics – particularly with regard to ever-growing government’s checkered record on identifying problems, assessing them correctly, and fashioning effective solutions. As new problems arise – or appear to arise – some factions of the citizenry will always run pell-mell after a “leader” or a party that promises to solve those problems in ways that will not only assuage any ill effects, but will actually save money at the same time. Over and over, fond hopes for magical solutions are dashed – producing disappointment, disillusionment, and sometimes outright disaster. My pop always said we should think of state motor-vehicle administration offices whenever we are tempted to entrust problems to government. Good intentions are not the same thing as competence.

This political cycle of hope, anticipation and disappointment has happened so often that one would think it was well-understood that government is seldom the answer. But one would be wrong: we haven’t grasped it yet. Ronald Reagan – just a “dumb actor reading lines,” as some pundits called him – was pretty close to the truth when he said, “Government isn’t the answer to our problems; government is the problem.” Mr. Reagan did all he could to reduce our reliance on government, but he could never quite overcome Americans’ preference for hope over experience. We have a serious case of it – hopefully not a terminal case, but the jury is still out.

The 2010 Affordable Health Care Act (a.k.a. Obamacare) showed us exactly how rosy political promises – lies, really – can spiral down into a nightmare. Dazzling guarantees of lower costs, coverage of pre-existing conditions, free reproductive care (mainly abortion), and inclusion of grown children in parents’ policies have degenerated into uncontrollable monsters of soaring premiums, unaffordable medical care and financial ruin for many families. I personally know of persons who died because they couldn’t afford to pay their insurance-deductible for the care they needed. Too late, millions of voters realized that they were sold a bill of goods stuffed with absurd promises that a child could have seen through. And as we see today, it can be the very devil to undo any government program – even one as unpopular as Obamacare. 

Recently I ran into another demonstration of hope over experience when I fell into conversation at a social event with two acquaintances – one my age, the other younger by a dozen years or so. Both lectured me on the “reality” and looming danger of climate change. They were certain that we were in big trouble unless we took action. Neither is a scientist, so I asked how they knew it was a real problem. For each, the answer was basically because the government said so.

“How is the climate changing?” I asked. “Is it getting warmer or colder?” They weren’t sure, as we did seem to be experiencing both hot and cold weather. But they were certain polar ice was disappearing, and the polar bears’ habitat was being destroyed. Facts such as five times as many polar bears now, as in 1960, and Antarctic ice reaching record-high levels made no impression. Nor did doomsday-warnings about a “new ice-age” in the 1970s becoming the “burning planet” in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and now simply “climate-change.” Data-schmata! The government says we have to act now, before it’s too late, and my companions, along with many others, accepted that urgency as gospel. Surely doing something was better than nothing, said one. We can’t just sit there until the “hammer falls.” They were surprised – maybe shocked! – that I couldn’t see that.

In response, I told them about the 14th-century town fathers of Assisi, Italy, who believed that paint in the church frescoes was causing the Black Plague. I pointed out that those worthies also thought it better to “do something” than to just wait. Their order to whitewash the church walls resulted in the destruction of priceless art, but did zilch to stop the Plague.

But my cocktail-party companions couldn’t see how that tale had anything to do with our climate “crisis.” 14th-century people were ignorant of science and medicine, they said. We’re much smarter today, so it makes sense to act – even if we haven’t identified the climate-problem precisely. I pointed out that stopping our use of fossil-fuels – which the Greenies devoutly advocate – would cost millions of jobs and trillions of dollars, thereby drastically reducing the country’s standard of living. They shrugged that estimate off, however, expressing skepticism that sensible people would ever let things go that far. It could never come to that.

As our conversation continued, pollution got mixed in with climate-change. One of my acquaintances was particularly concerned about clean air and water. I tried to persuade him that we had addressed our pollution-problem long ago and had pretty much licked it. The temperature-inversion smog-alerts of the 1970s are just a fading memory, since we put catalytic converters on cars. And Lake Erie – essentially a “dead sea” in the 1960s – has been cleaned up and revitalized. Moreover, the Paris Climate Accord did nothing about the mega-pollution of China and India. I pointed out that Mr. Trump pulled us out of the Paris agreement because it would have hurt us, economically, while letting China’s and India’s pollution-spewing industries go full-bore, without any restrictions, until 2030.

Our discussion concluded when I asked what my companions would be willing to give up, personally, in order to stop climate-change. I got no clear answer. One of them ducked the question entirely by fatuously averring that some of us, but not necessarily all of us, might have to give up something – leaving the impression that he didn’t really expect to make any sacrifices, since others could better afford to do so. I strongly suspect that he believed climate-change could be stopped without any inconvenience or cost to him or his family.

I don’t know when I have heard such confidence expressed in government’s ability to solve a complicated problem whose existence is not really proven. Like a match struck in the darkness, our discussion illuminated why Americans still favor hope over experience in matters of governance. To a certain extent that trust is a good thing, of course, but only if government does not abuse that it by inventing crises or exploiting them to “harass our people and eat out their substance” (as Thomas Jefferson famously described King George’s agents).

The dark side of that simple trust, however, is the conviction held by far too many citizens that government can “solve” ill-defined (or nonexistent) problems without costing them any bother or expense. Big trouble will certainly result when people who hold this dangerously immoral delusion find that it simply cannot be true. Indeed, it conflicts, fundamentally, with Thomas Jefferson’s vision of an educated, intelligent and moral citizenry sharing the burdens and responsibilities of self-government. Demagogues will use that exploded delusion to hammer our system of government and pronounce it “broken,” as has already occurred in the 2016 presidential election campaign. Absolutely no good can come of this for the country.

Ronald Reagan’s working motto was “Trust but verify.” We need to keep that nugget of wisdom firmly in mind when our government wants to rush headlong into radical “solutions” for “problems” that may or may not exist. Let’s not become the generation that looks back with regret on having sacrificed the greatest, most productive economy in history to a hubristic “belief” that we can actually stabilize the earth’s climate.

Beating tom-toms and dancing around a bonfire will be just as effective, and will cost a lot less. And it won’t hurt to remember those tragic, whitewashed church walls in Assisi.