For `true believers,' results are irrelevant

October 27, 2005|By THOMAS SOWELL

A reader recently sent me an e-mail about a woman he had met and fallen for. Apparently the attraction was mutual - until one fateful day when the subject of the environment came up.

She was absolutely opposed to any drilling for oil in Alaska on grounds of what harm she said it would do to the environment.

He argued that since oil was going to be drilled for somewhere in the world anyway, was it not better to drill where there were environmental laws to provide at least some kinds of safeguards rather than in countries where there were none?

That was the end of a beautiful relationship.

Environmentalist true believers don't think in terms of trade-offs and cost-benefit analysis. There are things that are sacred to them. Trying to get them to compromise on those things would be like trying to persuade a Muslim to eat pork, if it was only twice a week.

Compromise and tolerance are not the hallmarks of true believers. What they believe in goes to the heart of what they are. As far as true believers are concerned, you are either one of "Us" or one of "Them."

The man apparently thought that it was just a question of which policy would produce which results. But many issues that look on the surface like they are just about which alternative would best serve the public are really about being one of Us or one of Them - and this woman was not about to become one of Them.

Many crusades of the political left have been misunderstood by people who do not understand that these crusades are about establishing the identity and the superiority of the crusaders.

This is not unique to our times or to environmentalists. During the 1930s, in the years leading up to World War II, one of the fashionable self-indulgences of the left in Britain was to argue that the British should disarm "as an example to others" in order to serve the interests of peace.

When economist Roy Harrod asked one of his friends whether she thought that disarming Britain would cause Adolf Hitler to disarm, her reply was: "Oh, Roy, have you lost all your idealism?"

In other words, it was not really about which policy would produce which results. It was about personal identification with lofty goals and kindred souls.

The ostensible goal of peace was window-dressing. Ultimately it was not a question whether arming or disarming Britain was more likely to deter Hitler. It was a question of which policy would best establish the moral superiority of the anointed and solidify their identification with one another.

"Peace" movements are not judged by the empirical test of how often they actually produce peace or how often their disarmament tempts an aggressor into war. It is not an empirical question. It is an article of faith and a badge of identity.

Yasser Arafat was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize - not for actually producing peace but for being part of what was called "the peace process," based on fashionable notions that were common bonds among members of what are called "peace movements."

Meanwhile, nobody suggested awarding a Nobel Peace Prize to Ronald Reagan just because he brought the nuclear dangers of a decades-long Cold War to an end. He did it the opposite way from how members of "peace movements" thought it should be done.

President Reagan beefed up the military and entered into an "arms race" that he knew would bankrupt the Soviet Union if it didn't back off, even though arms races are anathema to members of "peace movements." That events proved him right was no excuse as far as members of "peace movements" were concerned. As far as they were concerned, he was not one of Us. He was one of Them.

Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. His syndicated column appears Thursdays in The Sun.

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