The Biggest Mistakes of the 1900s...and the Envelope Please!Commentary by Pete du Pont
December 30, 1999
With the change of the calendar from 1999 to the year 2000, people are naturally looking back at the past century to find one person, idea or event that most improved the future. Einstein's theory of relativity changed the basis of science; D-Day, the largest military assault in history, permanently changed the geopolitical course of the world; and Neil Armstrong's walk on the moon realized the dreams of centuries.
But it is important to remember the mistakes made in the last century too, and they are worth some thought so that they are not repeated in the next century. As George Santayana said: "Those who do not learn from history are destined to repeat it." While there were many errors in the running, there is only one that stands out as the most important mistake of the last 100 years.
But first the runners-up. Third runner-up: "The world is running out of natural resources." This initially descended from the prophecies of Thomas Malthus that over population would bring famine, shortages, and doom. But none of this has come to pass; we are awash in everything from copper ore to oil, wheat and opportunity. The gas lines of the 1970s were due to a reliance on foreign oil, rather than an actual energy shortage. Prices went up because of political events in the Middle East, not because oil was scarce. New technologies are further eroding the idea that we are running out of resources.
Second runner-up: "Yes Virginia, there is a free lunch." Whether it is new government spending or minimum wage hikes, or more political campaign controls, it is believed by some that government can provide federal goodies without any real cost or consequences. One prime example is welfare. Creating a public safety-net was in itself a good idea, but by not establishing time limits and insisting that no welfare mother could be married or work, the government created a perverse incentive to remain jobless.
The main cost came with the breakdown of the work ethic. Had welfare remained untouched, we could have developed a permanent underclass. Reforms showed that time limits and work requirements were essential to restoring pride and one's ability to provide for one's self.
First runner-up: The fear of technology. While hard to believe today, people once believed that technology would permanently damage our economy. Recall the Luddites and the Saboteurs of the 18th century. Among the many fears, was the belief technology would create unemployment as workers were replaced by automation and new technologies.
While there were some layoffs during the transition, the rise of technology resulted in a huge net gain for our economy. Companies still need humans to run, fix and design the machines, a new industry for computer software has been created, and the Internet empowered entrepreneurs. In fact, since 1982 40 million new jobs have been created in the midst of history's greatest technology explosion. Technology has also benefited society in other ways: advances in medicine have saved lives and increased life expectancy from 47 years in 1900 to the current 77 years.
The biggest mistake, however, was the belief that collectivist government could work. Instead, Communism's virulent evil destroyed hope, opportunity and life itself for nearly 100 million people in a dozen nations, from Russia to China, Cuba to Cambodia. It destroyed individuals, families, customs and entire societies. If nothing else is gleaned from this century's experience, it should be that this Utopian idea was a consuming disaster, proving false the idea that an elite few know best how to run people's lives.
The regimes were brutal: Communists killed people not for what they had done, but for who they were. And it wasn't just Lenin and Stalin. At least 10 million people died in Chairman Mao's China, and Pol Pot's Cambodian regime managed to exterminate 2 million people, a quarter of the nation's population, in just three-and-a-half years. This human tragedy was paired with utopian economic stupidity, including the nationalization of all industry and commerce, the abolition of money in favor of barter with the government, and compulsory labor for all men and many women and children.
Most astounding, however, is decades of Western intellectuals and elites bought into the Communist vision. Lincoln Colcord of the Philadelphia Public Ledger wrote "the proletariat of Russia is striving to accomplish for his world what much the same ideals which our forefathers laid down for theirs." Economist John Kenneth Galbraith wrote in 1984, that the Soviet economy was making "great material progress." And who could forget Jane Fonda telling college students that "if you understood what communism was, you would hope, you would pray on your knees, that we would one day become Communists."
The good news is that time moves on, and the generations whose parents and professors extolled the virtues of the Communist ways will soon be replaced by the technology generation, people grounded in individualism and personal empowerment. The end of the left's vision will come not from a change in policies, but from the new technologies that are empowering people and individualizing opportunities.
So the worst mistake of the Millennium? Communism in a landslide.
The National Center for Policy Analysis is a public policy research institute founded in 1983 and internationally known for its studies on public policy issues. The NCPA is headquartered in Dallas, Texas, with an office in Washington, D.C.