Friday, February 20, 2009

Model society

My son and I just finished working on a model airplane from a kit that I found in an antique store. I bought it because it was a biplane, and I am fascinated by anything to do with early aviation in general, and World War I flying in particular. This was a model of a 1920s Russian aircraft, and the kit was made in the old, unlamented Soviet Union. Since I did Russian studies in college, it was additionally interesting to me.

We spent quite some time working on the plane, mostly because the model was so poorly made. This reminded me of the many stories I had read about what the Soviets euphemistically called the problem of 'the quality of production.' What that meant was that, because the Soviet Union was a communist tyranny imposing a command economy on one of the world's largest societies, nothing was done well. Consumer products were notoriously cheap and tawdry and in short supply, and very little that the Soviet economy produced actually worked or lasted.

As we were struggling with parts that did not fit, or that broke if you touched them, or were molded so poorly that they had to be trimmed and shaped by hand, I kept pointing out to my son that this is what happens when we let the government do everything. I told him that in the old Soviet Union, which was referred to by its bosses as a form of paradise, people were very poor. And so when they saved enough money to buy a consumer product, be it a car or a coat or an airplane model (if they could find one), they did so only through great sacrifice and thrift. But when they got the thing home and found that it did not work, or just fell apart, imagine their frustration, and their fury at the government that had imposed this abusive, inane system on them in the first place.

As a result, even the Russians, who are a notoriously compliant and passive people, got fed up and overthrew the government that had abused and lied to and cheated them for seventy years. You can only push people - any people - so far before they rebel.

Now the lesson in all this, as I told my son, is that when you let the government do things, invariably you get abused and lied to and cheated. You get model airplanes that cannot be assembled, and cars that do not last, and medical services that satisfy no one. Oh, yes, the government does do some things reasonably well, like policing and putting out fires and building aircraft carriers, and that is its natural and restricted sphere of activity. But when we allow government to move beyond that sphere into our daily lives, into commerce and medicine and insurance, for example, we do so at the risk of parts that do not fit, and systems that break, and things you end up having to fix yourself by hand before you finally, in frustration, throw the whole mess out. Which is what the Russian people did, and what we ended up doing with the Soviet model airplane.

Yet when I look around at our society, I see increasing demands that government take over (and it is, in fact, taking over, or 'bailing out' as the current language goes), that government run more and more of our economy, that it intrude farther and farther into our private lives, and that it substitute its bureaucracy, inefficiency and waste for our personal initiative and freedom to create. And what that leads to we have already seen: the dimming of the human spirit, the dulling of personal creativity, and the dehumanization of society.

The lesson which my son took away from our experience with this example of collectivist productivity (and of which I was reminded yet again) is that government is the least efficient way to get anything made or done, be it health care or drugs or insurance or model airplanes.