Freeman

ARTICLE

Amelioration

JULY 01, 1987 by PHILIP J. BOWERS

Mr. Bowers is President of Benchmark Projects, New York, N.Y., and a contracting project manager and planner in the computer systems field.

In May, 1927, when my father was a boy of 13, a personage” of his town stopped by to visit one day. It was a time when aviators risked their lives, usually at a loss, to fly the Atlantic for the first time. Reports of plane crashes, aborted flights, and missing pilots filled the newspapers of the day.

My father listened intently to this august visitor, who stridently declared that no one would ever fly the Atlantic. One week later Charles Lindbergh made it to Paris alone—by plane. The visitor’s impromptu speech impressed my father indelibly. The short span between prediction and contradiction provided him with a lesson he carried the rest of his life: never say never.

Dad grew up and lived in an age in which he expected, as a matter of fact, change for the better. I call this expectation amelioration. He watched the automobile replace the horse-drawn milk wagon, he heard the radio bring opera into people’s homes on Saturday afternoons. He saw air mail become a mode of quick delivery, talking movies displace vaudeville. As a boatsman, he benefited from mass production which delivered affordable boats to the man in the street. He saw the outboard motor change from a finicky, noisy, “handyman special” to a quiet, dependable, and easily obtainable means of recreation. He watched racing boats improve their top speeds from 30 some miles per hour to well over 200 miles per hour. On an experimental basis, he built the first steel-framed houses east of the Mississippi in the late 1930s. At the same time, he built the first garden apartments in New Jersey—a daring venture.

A Shared Experience

That was about the time I arrived on the scene. As I grew, I learned to share Dad’s sense of amelioration. Together, we watched the airplane displace the steamship as the primary mode of travel across the seas. We witnessed the disappearance of polio and smallpox. Together, we realized our dream of actually seeing the man, as he spoke, on the radio. We saw racial discrimination, particularly on the small town, day-to-day level, diminish significantly. We watched plastics become the “wave of the future” in the 1950s and 1960s. And in the summer of 1969, together we participated in Nell Armstrong’s “one small step” upon• the moon. In 1971, Dad passed on.

Dad’s legacy was wonderment—the ability to look at the world with kid-like awe, excitement, and caring. He saw the world as basically good, and the people in it, as benevolent. He viewed the Hitlers, Stalins, Mussolinis, and Tojos as mere aberrations—temporary departures from the norm. He kept his focus on the world’s long-term improving conditions. He maintained a benign, loving, custodial watch upon his world, of which he took proud emotional ownership.

Dad had handed me the torch of amelioration. Now, the only noticeable difference in a progressively better world is its accelerating rate of change. In the computer industry for 20 years, I’ve not only seen enormous change, but I’ve actively participated in it. At IBM in the late 1960s, I continually encountered change—often on a daily basis. The Personal Computer, although predictable, still amazes me. Consider that in 1967 I sold a “small” business computer that was 1600 times less powerful and about 20 times larger than the PC for well over $300,000.

I wish Dad were around to see, for example, automatic teller machines. Imagine getting cash from an unattended machine on a Sunday evening! Or the skyline of New York City. We’re putting up 50-story apartment buildings like they were row houses. I live in a building whose population is half the size of the town where I was born. We truly live in remarkable times.

Part of Dad’s legacy of amelioration was his sense of participation in the “American experiment.” I was seven when World War II ended. Dad returned from a devastated Europe. Then America stood alone among the nations of the world as a tower of strength, a far more desk-able country in which to live than any place else on earth.

Dad transmitted to me his sense of gratitude for having been born here. His descriptions of what it would have been like to grow up in Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, or even France, instead of the U.S., stuck with me. I remember late-night air raid practices in which my entire home town turned out all lights. The sirens and visits from our block’s Civil Defense warden scared me. And I knew that my four- and five-year old counterparts in Germany, Russia, and France were dying from real bombs. Scared as I was, my heart went out to those children who were suffering so terribly.

At an early age, I knew we held something precious. I wasn’t sure what it was, but I resolved to find out. Whereas Dad marked progress with enthusiasm, I also wondered from whence it came. Along the way, I concluded that it had something to do with the ideaspeople carried, how people treated each other, and how they organized. I realized, too, that it had something to do with enthusiasm. I noticed that my own enthusiasm could move mountains.

Further on, i concluded that the organization of one’s government, particularly with regard to economics, was a key. As a young adult, I began to see the deleterious effects of dictators upon South American, Eastern European, and, later, African countries. I began to see that incentive, a textbook term for enthusiasm, was critically important.

No experiment could have created better comparisons of the effects of contrasting orga nizations than the real-world differences between East Berlin and West Berlin, East Germany and West Germany, mainland China and Taiwan or Hong Kong, between North Korea and South Korea, between Japan and Cuba, between Switzerland and Albania, between the free and the unfree. There was definitely something to be learned here.

My Amelioration: Freedom

And so it is, now: I see that freedom is all. I see the world constantly striving for it. I see freedom as arising from a fundamental yearning within me and my fellow humans. It is the expression of a desire to create a world in which mutual consent operates maximally and force is kept to a minimum. It is the institution-alized manifestation of the very human desire to express good will and benevolence.

For me, my amelioration, the ability to perceive the world as moving in a direction of being a better place to live, is freedom. As custodian of my amelioration I raise my voice in support as I see the peoples of the world getting more and more freedom. With great delight, I see a vast, unheralded, underlying, and fundamental movement toward more freedom.

As I see it, despite the last few decades’ atrocious genocides, the arms buildup, and the heavy- handed tactics of dictators around the world, the man in the street in Jakarta, Shanghai, Havana, and even Leningrad will laugh dictators off the podium. It has already happened recently in Jamaica and the Philippines. For my money, the commnist/socialist/totalitarian/authoritarian/dictatorial ideal has been a philosophical dead letter for decades. As a planet, we are in the process of mopping up the after-the-party debris which may take another couple of decades. The trend reminds me of the wholesale deposition of kings which occurred between the late 1700s and the early 1900s.

Economic Miracles

The prospects are exciting. “Economic miracles” are popping up all over the place. We are inured to their commonplace. West Germany and Japan were among the first. Now there are places in South America, India, and even Africa where similar “miracles” have occurred. In the last thirty years in South America, those who live under elected governments have increased from 20 per cent to well over 90 per cent—unimaginable in the 1950s and 1960s.

Every day brings another example of economic freedom and improving conditions somewhere in the world. France, a socialist country, is “privatizing” industry and removing price and credit controls after their disastrous experiment. Australia, another quasi-socialist country, is loosening up its economy in the direction of economic freedom. In the past year or so, Ecuador has eliminated most price controls, reduced many tariffs, and cut the public sector payroll significantly.

Turkey is liberalizing its economy more than it has done since the Ottomans. Ireland has recently deregulated its airlines with salubrious effects. Austrian socialists are dropping marginal tax rates, just like the U.S. India is a sleeping giant preparing its own bed of liberalization. We have already heard of the undreamed of liberalization attempts in China. Eastern European countries and even Soviet Russia are seeking market or quasi-market so-lutions to their horrendous economic problems.

We have all noticed that the world is “getting smaller.” Technology has provided us with instant communications and rapid travel. It is very difficult to reverse (some postulate that technology is irreversible—i.e., you cannot put the genie back into the bottle). This “smallness” of the world allows members of country X to look easily over their shoulders and see what’s going on in country Y. It allows people to view “real-world” examples of the effects of contrasting policies.

Not only is it (and will be) more difficult for centralized, authoritarian governments to hide the successes of more liberal governments from their own people, but also it is (and will be) easier to answer “what if” questions with more certainty. If someone were to postulate an extraordinary idea such as privatizing and deregulating, say, the post office, one can (and will) more easily look around and find a country which has already shown it can be done.

This phenomenon is known as the Demonstration Effect and has (and will) put governments in positions of de facto competition with each other in serving their citizens’ interests. It provides a powerful tool for promulgating the policies which work best at the expense of those which work least. From my point of view, those which will prove to have worked best will invariably be policies which move away from authoritarianism toward the ideal of freedom.

Passing the Torch

This, then, is the dream and the promise. It carries with it Dad’s axiomatic view that each generation of humans across the globe has it in its power to ameliorate its conditions and to leave behind a better world for its having been there. With great care, I pass this treasure on to you.

ASSOCIATED ISSUE

July 1987

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Unfortunately, educating people about phenomena that are counterintuitive, not-so-easy to remember, and suggest our individual lack of human control (for starters) can seem like an uphill battle in the war of ideas. So we sally forth into a kind of wilderness, an economic fairyland. We are myth busters in a world where people crave myths more than reality. Why do they so readily embrace untruth? Primarily because the immediate costs of doing so are so low and the psychic benefits are so high.
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