Problems of Great Minitude
APRIL 01, 1977 by JOAN MARIE LEONARD
Miss Leonard is a free-lance writer.
We have big troubles. and they’re all small.
That is no contradiction in terms because what we’re doing is taking minimal problems and making them grandiose through political action. Our problems are so small, we can’t even see how small they are, buried as they are under polished conference tables, in paneled committee rooms, behind the office doors of hundreds of thousands of bureaucrats and smothered by billion dollar expenditures.
How small are they? Virtually every one is a household problem, no more complex than taking down the screens, putting up the storms or getting the youngsters dressed for school.
Can you imagine what your house would be like if run by a committee in the attic? There would be edicts on how many ounces of oatmeal to serve. You’d probably starve before you got a decision on whether or not you could buy food with preservatives. And, of course, all your tables would have to have rounded corners, padded for safety.
It is increasingly obvious that such a committee is in your attic, so to speak, and the way you’re living is getting to be just that ridiculous. Although you don’t see the committee itself, you see the results of its work in your newspaper and in your cupboard. And it’s a committee of marauders! They rob you while you sleep. They have already dipped into your savings through inflation, siphoned gas out of your car through energy controls, made your house expensive to comfortize through the regulation of utilities. And they take a cut out of every package of food in your pantry through added costs, subsidies, taxes and the like.
They work 24 hours a day to make life difficult for you. They pay people not to do your odd jobs and make all work done for you more expensive through law-enforced wage scales and unemployment compensations.
When you’re sick, they keep lifesaving medicines out of your reach and tell you it’s for your own good! If you can’t get a doctor to come to your house, they are the reason. Their "protection" racket keeps doctors from being as available as they would otherwise be, due to licensing, lack of competition and controlled medical training and practices.
They operate the only school in town and they teach your kids that you are selfish and they are nice. After all, you wouldn’t provide your own children with education if not for them, through compulsory attendance.
They’ve found your safe, taken out the valuables and replaced them with IOUs. These IOUs used to say they would pay you back. They don’t say that any more. Now your dollars are just paper, unbacked by value of any kind.
And these fellows don’t like you a bit. They think you are unkind and uncharitable, so they keep taking your things and giving them to others who are willing to accept them. They have the keys to all the homes in the neighborhood; and those who want your things keep sending them back for more.
The Protection Racket
Who are "they?" They’re the laws we have. They’re the makers and enforcers of socialist governmental policies. They’re the fellows you hired to protect you from the criminal activity of others. Protection used to be their responsibility. Now it’s their racket. But their success depends on their invisibility, and people are beginning to see.
Look anywhere and you’ll see it . little household problems overblown into community-wide, country-wide and world-wide problems and emergencies.
Garbage is an example. Trash disposal and sanitation were among the earliest "problems" taken over by government on the basis that private enterprise couldn’t be trusted to dispose of it. And what do we have? Reeking garbage in the streets, unattended by $18,000-a-year city garbage collectors who are on strike for more pay. Less frequent collections. More demands for garbage preparation by householders for the benefit of the high-paid collectors. Open dumping and burning. Hideous trash heaps on the countryside. Buried garbage that is bulldozed up into noxious problems when land is developed. Streams polluted by sanitation plants. A deteriorating system that has grown not in efficiency, but in expense. A system virtually unimproved since Roman times when Caesar is said to have placed a sign on the city outskirts reading: "Carry your refuse farther or you will be fined."¹
When the government handles garbage it is a weighty problem of some 145 million tons a year (1964 figure). To Elmer Bard, operating on the scale of 1, it was not a big problem at all. Mr. Bard wanted to dispose of garbage at his summer home. He developed a backyard chemical unit (The Bard-Matic Garbage Eliminator System) that reduces garbage to a compost that can be used for fertilizing his soil and improving its moisture retention.2
Numberless solutions would now be working to our advantage if government hadn’t taken over "the problem" with its one, old-fashioned method. While industry has greatly improved waste disposal through sink units and compactors, we still have garbage on the streets for pick-up, garbage cans to load and haul around . . . a centuries-old system in a 1970 society. All because this infinitesimal "mole-hill" of a disposal problem is handled as a mountain of waste by government.
The Energy "Problem"
Or, consider the most magnitudinous "problem" of our day energy—another area reserved for government control on the basis of its importance. Although the utilities are investor-owned and often present themselves as private industries because they pay taxes, they are government subsidiaries in that their rates and practices are controlled by government.
Energy, like garbage, is only a mammoth problem when considered on a mammoth scale—providing zillions of kilowatts from central sources rather than the relatively simple task of generating electricity for a household, building or tract of homes.
Just how ridiculous can we be? At the moment, the government, with $290 million in solar energy programs within its $8 billion Energy Research and Development Administration (in addition to HUD solar energy research at the cost of $1200 per home and investigation of energy by the Office of Technology Assessment as well as who knows how many other agencies3) is considering several sunny areas for an experimental solar energy facility. The proposed $100 million facility in
Now, how many things can you find that are absurd in that whole experimental idea. Besides the enormous sums ($10,000 per kilowatt compared to regular generating costs of $130 per kilowatt in 1960 and $386 per kilowatt in 1975). Besides the overlapping efforts. Besides the fact that government projects drain energy from private efforts that would make solar energy efficiently produced, widely available, abundant, low cost and a source of profit for investors instead of a means of impoverishing taxpayers.
There is, of course, the limited value of conducting research for the whole country in areas of unusually intense sun. But the funniest thing probably is that the sun is going to be used to produce steam and run turbines. That’s something like attaching an electric motor to a horse. The sun is energy. And it’s all around us . . . everywhere! Only a bureaucracy would think of loading the sun’s energy onto wires and carting it across the countryside. Transporting the sun! And spilling it all over too!
Solar energy can eliminate the need for electrical transmission from centralized power stations. It can eliminate the losses and waste of energy in transmission. The sun’s energy is directly convertible to electricity through solar cells. These cells are still prohibitively expensive, rather strangely so since their principal ingredient is sand, but this squandering of public wealth is not only an utter waste in itself but diverts resources (money is energy too!) from the development of less expensive cells.
The solar cell can make each house independent of utilities and government for the manufacture of power. No more power lines. No more utility bills. Of course, the government would miss revenues from utilities. Is that why it is trying to keep us in the past of centrally-produced power?
While technology continually moves us toward lower costs and greater independence, the government keeps pushing us backward with higher costs and greater reliance on its power.
The government justified its control of the energy supply by the importance of availability and the "need" to avoid duplicating wires and the like. Our cities wouldn’t be so strung up with wires and hung up with shortages today if politicians hadn’t centralized and controlled power.
Wherever there is a long-lasting or large-scale shortage, government has exercised its stifling control. It’s axiomatic: A free market automatically supplies demand through the incentive of profit. Government automatically stifles industry when it directly or indirectly controls profit and cost levels. Government intervention is just that—an interruption of activity. It should be used to interrupt the disruptive but never the productive. Although it often uses the need for availability as an excuse to interfere, political interferences can only act to limit availability.
It is the same with the air waves. Availability is considered "limited," so government has to exercise its control. But voice and picture transmission has only been limited to the extent government has limited it. Television is transmitted by cables as well as air waves and produced through cassettes as well as through broadcast studios. Voice is not just transmitted by radio stations but by short wave channels, "ham" relays, recordings and tapes. New uses of light and lasers suggest more new sources of electrical transmission. We’re not "limited." We’re controlled.
Government Housing: Chicanery and Waste
Consider our housing "problem." Without government help, we provided more and better housing than any country in history has enjoyed. With the entrance of government subsidies into housing, we have seen deterioration in quality and escalation of costs, every dollar spent toward government standards being extracted from efficiency and innovation. But building codes and controls stultified housing and construction long before direct government intrusion ruined it with shoddiness, financial manipulation, political chicanery and waste.
Basically, through regulations, we have been building the same house over and over again. Codes establish blind, unthinking uniformity. It is incredible that with all the new materials and technology at our disposal we are still building houses as we built them forty, a hundred and two hundred years ago. It is especially disconcerting since we have had the benefit in our time of the ideas of a man many consider the greatest architect in history.
Frank Lloyd Wright was building homes with recessed lighting and built-ins as long ago as 1895. He was working in areas of prefabrication in the first decade of the 1900s. He was developing steel construction and low cost housing and writing about "a fireproof house for $5000" in the ’30s. And it was also way back then that he introduced radiant floor heating. I appreciate that fact particularly because the apartment I live in was built about fifteen years ago under all the city, state and federal building codes. It has radiant heat too—in the ceiling. Since heat rises, the space between the ceiling and the roof is probably quite cozy. Even just under the ceiling it is quite nice, but I hardly ever lounge around up there.
Codes have not protected us from nonsense, mistakes or low standards any more than licensing has. On the contrary, they tend to institutionalize low standards because the minimum becomes the norm.
For example, codes specify the number of outlets in every room. We wind up with the stipulated sufficiency. But would you mind having a room without outlets? I certainly wouldn’t. They’re a mess. And if builders weren’t legally forced to install specific numbers of outlets they’d be thinking more about other ways of providing for our electrical needs that would be greatly improved.
We don’t need unsightly wires all around the floors. Would you miss those octopus outlets and extension cords? If it weren’t for electrical codes which keep us so old fashioned, by now we might have luminous walls giving off varying, dial-controllable intensities of both light and warmth. We could have light like sunshine coming from our interior walls. We could have daylight at night. We could use lighting in many different ways for varying effects. We could do away with cumbersome lamps. Our appliances could be turned on by touch—anywhere in the room—without outlets at all.
Because he built in new and better ways, Wright was constantly at odds with building codes officials; and who knows how many of his ideas didn’t appear as a consequence. Then, at the age of 86, after 66 years of unparalleled accomplishment in architecture, he was advised by the State of
We have been so protected against creativity, innovation and advancement that our housing is hardly farther along than what our pioneers enjoyed. We’ve filled our "cabins" with the benefits of modern industry, but the cabin itself remains pretty much the same old box because of government controls.
Wright brought a free spirit to American architecture and characterized it as "unfolding, rather than enfolding." But not until we rid ourselves of the binding uniformity of government codes and standards can it begin to unfold.
Market Adjustments to Change
There is no way to stop change, but it can be politically arrested and diverted so that regress temporarily supplants progress. A natural, free market system accommodates change. "Plans" assume no change, but even planners change plans. And plans change hands. And no two planners plan alike. All plans are at odds with each other. There are no grand plans, only temporary ones. Plans change. Lands are rezoned. They go from agricultural to commercial. They go from state to private ownership and back again in trades. Privileges are granted or taken away as in the case of tree-cutting, grazing and other uses of public lands. But always, the change is according to the whims, bribes or favors of politicians. Zones and codes are made to be broken by other zoners, coders and political maneuvers. Only through a free market is change brought about by efficiency, innovation and advances of benefit to all; because only in an open market do rewards go to the productive and inventive, not the political hacks, opportunists and politically expedient.
Consider our "problem" of conservation and environment. The free market is the greatest instrument for the conservation and effective utilization of resources ever devised, penalizing waste and rewarding efficiency. But we put "conservation" in the hands of government and the result is nonuse, waste, destruction and litter.
Seeing our forests sitting absurdly useless while our need and demand for wood increases at higher and higher prices is like sitting on your hands and starving while your garden is ripe for picking. While the government has abandoned millions of acres of forest to accidental fires and further wasted resources through "artificial burns," private companies like Weyerhaeuser have cultivated forestry and reforestation techniques. Weyerhaeuser is creating new, well-spaced forests of stronger, genetically superior trees . . . trees that freshen the air with new and healthier oxygenization .. . trees that nourish wildlife by providing food and shelter through an improved natural habitat…woodlands that provide recreation before being harvested for industry and then are replanted, re-used and reharvested in a totally productive life cycle of benefit to people, animals and the forests themselves
We complain about the disappearance of animals while abandoning them to starvation, fires and obliteration in our government-sponsored wilderness areas. We attribute the extinction of our endangered species to the encroachments of civilization, but, on the contrary, it is the encroachment of government that keeps civilization from reaching and benefiting them. Starving coyotes are driven to attacking sheep and causing furors between sheep raisers and coyote lovers. "Open season" brings hunters in droves, killing even the baby deer.
Private development of wilderness preserves for sportsmen, photographers and vacationers would bring protection and care to the animals instead of leaving them to survival tests with neglected Nature’s strangled overgrowths. As long as hunting is a sport there would undoubtedly be hunting preserves and resorts, but hunting could be better controlled, the
There would be places where people would go just to enjoy the companionship of tame, cared-for animals. Natural enemies of the forest would be naturally separated under the self-interest of private property protection.
Our government-operated zoos are also out of place in our time and should have become extinct with the development of transportation. With a free, uncontrolled market in transportation we could be visiting giraffes, elephants and zebras in their African homelands with greater ease than we drive to the city zoo on a Sunday. We could visit animals living freely in their natural areas without crating and carting them to cages no matter how deluxe and "natural" we make them to salve our consciences.
As it is, under our restrictive system of government control of people and animals, we now have many zoo denizens eating better and more regularly than some of the taxpayers who help pay for their many pounds of fresh meat each day.
Depletion of the Sea
Our seas and streams are ravaged by our own fishermen and foreign foragers as a matter of public policy and government arrangement. As trawlers sweep our shores and fish become more scarce, tensions intensify and we come closer to such bitter skirmishes as The Cod War in the
Actually, there is no more reason for foreign vessels to be fishing our waters than for Alpine herders to come over here and steal our sheep—or for Italian bread makers to come and snatch our wheat—or for French winemakers to come and take our grapes. Life produces everywhere if it isn’t destroyed. It is destroyed everywhere through government disposition.
Through private ownership and farming of our continental waters, we could be raising tuna and other fish for market just as we raise other food and animals for eating. Through productive methods, we can leave the sea environment virtually undisturbed or even the beneficiary of increase for a change instead of victimized by rapaciousness. As we let private enterprise go to work supplying fish, with government serving only to protect private development of the oceans, other countries will learn from us to raise the fish they need—or we’ll ship ours in trade as our productivity increases.
Freedom Is Civilization
Private development is a system of close overseeing while "government conservation" is a system of neglect. Freedom is civilization. Through its increase, freedom extends happiness to every living thing.
You can go on down the list yourself. Take every problem and dispute you read about in the papers. You’ll find small problems turned into massive messes through enlargement of the difficulty by government regulation. Many are just household problems . . . like energy. Many are just personal problems . . . like drugs. Many are not problems at all . . . created and fictitious.
Consider our mass immunization to prevent an epidemic of a disease when there is not a single case of it anywhere in the country. They should have called it Piglet Flu since it’s more imaginary than real. Mass treatment with "free" inoculations seems only to be a tremendously costly and wasteful dress rehearsal for the more permanent shenanigans of mass health care through a Federal health program.
Or consider the need for cultural advancement through tax-supported arts, theater and music. It’s a good demonstration of interventionists trying to create a problem out of a solution. Nothing has advanced the arts and broadened their availability more than private enterprise.
A television production is seen at once by more millions than the combined total of all people who witnessed live stage productions over the past 400 years.5 Movies have displayed classic productions and performances all around the world. The greatest singers, operas and symphonic orchestras can be heard with technical perfection right in your home, inexpensively and as frequently as you like, via recordings as well as radio and television. Masterpieces of art formerly known and enjoyed by only a few are available to everyone through copies, prints and books with even the originals seen by millions.
The creative arts are practiced and enjoyed by more people than ever before through the availability of materials, instruction and improved technologies. And leisure time to pursue them is afforded by our incomparable productivity.
Through our communications and distribution channels, artists become famous faster—even before they die. Never before in history has there been anything comparable to our vast market for talent of all kinds. Television, with its voracious appetite for entertainment, suffers only from a lack of talent, certainly not an underexposed overabundance of it. You have only to look at your set on any night to see what unlimited opportunity there is for improvement. In publishing, despite inflationary pressures by government, people are finding themselves in print who never would have been published in a society of less abundance.
Every field of art is the same: never before such unlimited opportunity! Even the perennial "struggling artists" eat better and live better during their developing prefame years than any who were supported by kings and wealthy art patrons because they have the benefits of competition through which they can support themselves even on part-time earnings, feeding and clothing themselves at the lowest possible cost.
Artists needed favors in medieval times. Who didn’t! Today everyone has already been favored by the extended, extending and always more and more extendable benefits of the American way of life . . . the free economy.
How can such foolishness as government support of the arts even get a hearing? It probably must be attributed to the numbness of mind that sets in when "others" assume responsibilities and "others" are to foot the bill.
Accomplishing the Impossible
Our problems are simply so small we can’t see them, and besides, we’ve turned our eyes over to others. But they are no better than we are. Imagine someone paid to lift a fork to your mouth. It would be done much more clumsily and messily than if you did it yourself, but since you need to eat, the feeder could extort a lot of money from you for the service. The solution: pick up the fork!
My mother thinks one of the biggest problems in the world is folding fitted sheets. She thinks I’m a whiz at it. When she sees my car coming down the street she runs for the washer so the sheets will be ready for me to fold. One wallows in the admiration of even so humble an accomplishment, so I was folding away one day, thinking I might start a fitted-sheet-folding business ("I fold the sheets that give you fits.") when I looked up and saw my mother’s lip curl in revulsion as she saw what I was doing. "Ugh! It’s always so neat looking, I thought you had it neat inside too!" But, of course, there’s no way to make roundness square or to take stitched-in puckers out of shirred, stretch corners. The wrinkles are concealed, not eliminated. You can’t change what is natural. You accommodate it.
Similarly, the highly polished wood of all bureaucrat’s neat, flush doors are simply closed on problems that can’t be solved. Meanwhile, outside, people think the impossible is being accomplished and problems that can’t be solved politically are somehow, miraculously finding solutions!
Bureaus and laws are the rugs we’re sweeping all our dirty problems under. The way to rid ourselves of problems is not to hide them. We should open every problem& to the light of the free market and then watch that problem disappear . . . easily, quickly, efficiently.
No problem is too small for the free market to solve. And small, solved problems can’t grow into insoluble national crises.
1Successful Management of New Products by John T. Gerlach and Charles A. Wainwright (
3Nor should we omit the efforts of the Environmental Protection Agencies which often negate the energies of public and private agencies, the most recent example being in Seabrook, New Hampshire where an EPA reversal of approval for a nuclear power plant may result in an unusable $2 billion facility.
4See Weyerhaeuser High Yield Forestry/Growing Trees for Your Future printed by Weyerhaeuser Company,
5From the television special: "The First Fifty Years."
6The natural exception is the prevention of crime and protection of property, Constitutionally reserved as the only proper area for law-enforcement activity.