- The Washington Times - Monday, October 18, 2004

Some people think of California as a place where many kooky ideas originate. It is that but there is more to it.

California has long had more than its fair share of busybodies with a vision of the world in which it is necessary for them to force other people to do Good Things. That is not just a vision of the world, it is a vision of themselves — a very flattering vision they are not likely to give up for anything so mundane as facts or logic.

One of the latest examples is a ruling by one of the state’s many busybody commissions that people who build houses, or just remodel their homes, in the future must have more fluorescent lights and even install motion sensors to control lights — all in the name of saving energy.

Motion sensors? Yes. If you are in a room where motion sensors control the lights, sitting still for a while causes the lights to go off automatically.

The anointed busybodies believe we lesser people often leave the lights on when we walk out of a room, thereby wasting energy. The answer, as in so many other cases, is to impose their superior wisdom and virtue by forcing us to do a Good Thing — in this case install motion sensors to turn out the lights automatically when no one is moving in the room.

If you just like to sit still and think for a while, or perhaps listen to music or watch television, look for the lights to start going off if you are in California — and get used to having to wave your arms or shake your legs to get them to come back on again. But it’s a Good Thing.

The world is full of Good Things. That’s why there are so many laws and regulations increasingly intruding into our lives and restricting what we can do, even in our own homes. The vision of imposing Good Things means an ever-growing petty tyranny.

In some countries, where such visions are more sweeping, the tyranny is far from petty. Around the world and for thousands of years, human beings have been unable to leave other human beings alone.

Just think of all the centuries in which Christians tried to force Jews to change their religion or Muslims tried to force other people to adopt Islam. Was there nothing better to do with all that time and energy except persecute people for having different beliefs?

Some people obviously thought it a Good Thing to have other people believe what they believed or to unify the country with one religion. Like today’s busybodies, they seldom stopped to consider the cost of the Good Thing they wanted to do.

Whole economies have been ruined by expelling productive minorities who happened to have a different religion or belong to a different race. After Spain expelled the Moors in the 16th century, one of the religious leaders who had advocated their expulsion asked: “Who will make our shoes now?”

That would have been a very good question to ask before expelling them. Similar questions might well have been asked before France’s persecution of the Huguenots led them to flee in the 17th century, taking many productive enterprises with them. Twentieth century examples are too numerous to cite.

Good Things have costs, often out of all proportion to whatever good they might do. But tradeoffs and diminishing returns seldom deter zealots. Their own egos are served by their zealotry in imposing their vision, however costly or counterproductive it may be for others.

The whole environmental extremist movement is based on doing Good Things, in utter disregard of costs or diminishing returns.

The idea DDT might leave residues with harmful effects on some birds’ eggs was enough to set off a worldwide environmental crusade to ban that insecticide. The resurgence of malaria after that ban has cost millions of human lives.

Green zealots are not about to reconsider, on this or a whole range of other issues. Their vision triumphed, their superior wisdom and virtue were affirmed. And that is what it is ultimately all about. To admit, even to themselves, that their ego trips have cost other people their lives would be too much.

Thomas Sowell is a nationally syndicated columnist.



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