The Bad Old Days

World War II Nostalgia Is Thinly Veiled Collectivism

Collectivism runs deeper in our society than we like to think. Several phenomena indicate this. One of them is the regular display of nostalgia for World War II, the latest of which was sparked by release of the movie Pearl Harbor. It’s understandable that people whose lives were disrupted by the war would get together to relive their common experiences. People do that about all kinds of things.

What I’m referring to goes deeper and actually is insidious. Political leaders, pundits, television historians, and regular people longingly look back on the war as a grand time when, as a commercial for recordings of war-era songs put it, “we all pulled together.” Apparently, an era of peace, freedom, and privacy just can’t compare.

The commentators go further and lament that the baby-boom generation didn’t face something comparable: there was no great, unifying crisis. (Alas, Vietnam does not measure up.) Roosevelt-Johnson hagiographer Doris Kearns Goodwin recently whined that no leader has come along to “challenge” the boomer generation. These are the same people who swoon when they see the film of President Kennedy saying, “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” (Now there’s a false alternative!)

What’s wrong with all this? Two things. First, there is the implication that a society’s commitment to a single cause is a good in itself. This is sheer collectivism. As a general principle, if a free society is attacked and its members must drop what they were doing to defend themselves, it is only so that they can resume their private lives as soon as possible. Solidarity at best is an emergency measure. Second, those nostalgic for what war produces on the home front ache to make it the normal condition minus the blood and destruction. Thus the unending search for “the moral equivalent of war” (William James’s phrase) in the form of destructive government crusades for this, that, and the other.

What it all comes down to is a thinly veiled collectivism, in which individuals are increasingly deprived of control over their own lives and resources—in the mantle of a sappy patriotism.

Rather than indulging in such nostalgia, friends of liberty should identify it for what it is.

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When independent bookstores found themselves at a competitive disadvantage against Barnes & Noble and Borders, they—what else?—asked the government to do something. The economic theory they used to make their case was faulty, writes Gary Galles.

Social Security is palpably a bad deal, yet for many it’s the most wonderful thing the government has ever done. Hugh Macaulay resolves the paradox.

With the mapping of the human genome, the boon to health may be unfathomable. But some fear that genetic testing may permit insurance companies and others to know too much. Michael Rupert and E. Frank Stephenson counsel against the government’s interfering with the market for genetic information.

China doesn’t look the way it looks in old movies. The difference isn’t accounted for simply by the presence of Golden Arches and a finger-licking colonel, however, as Larry Tritten relates from personal experience.

Biodiversity appears to be valued more highly when someone else is forced to pay for it. The result, according to David Laband, is bad public policy.

When the Irish potato crop failed in 1845, laissez-faire capitalism suffered yet another black eye. But like the others, this one was undeserved. Stephen Davies sets the record straight.

With the re-election of the Blair government in Britain, another European nation remains in the hands of socialists in free marketeer’s clothing. Norman Barry strips away the disguise of the clever leftists. There was supposed to be a conference in Quebec City on making the Western hemisphere a free-trade zone. But beneath the trade rhetoric was the same old protectionist song. Pierre Lemieux scrutinizes the Third Summit of the Americas.

The news commentators talk about Alan Greenspan as though he were the helmsman steering the economy with pinpoint precision. But can you imagine what it would take to run an economy? Christopher Mayer gives it a try.

The federal government taxes producers in the 50 states and then sends some of the money back, giving rise to a list of states that apparently either win or lose in the transfer process. That’s the collectivist manner of looking at the issue. Methodological individualism brings Christopher Westley to another conclusion.

A prominent Catholic cleric has written that workers have a moral obligation to join unions. That brought him into conflict with a Catholic teacher who claimed that being required to join a union violated the church’s social teachings. Who has the better argument? Charles Baird sorts it all out.

Here is what our columnists have come up with. Donald Boudreaux urges Congress to enact energy price caps. Lawrence Reed looks at education tax credits. Doug Bandow defends the pharmaceutical companies. Thomas Szasz exposes pseudocritics of psychiatry. Dwight Lee rejects command-and-control environmentalism. Mark Skousen sees new appreciation of F. A. Hayek. Russell Roberts asks if trade harms the poor. And Roger Garrison, hearing claims that the economy is naturally cyclical, retorts, “It Just Ain’t So!”

Books coming under review this month focus on the Clinton record, the Great Depression, the chairman of the Fed, George Soros’s views on capitalism, the failure of education reform, and Henry Wallace.