April 1991

Economies of Scale

I haven’t seen that many of them lately: those bumper stickers that proudly proclaim, “I don’t believe the liberal media.” That sounds blundered, but there is a point here.

Who are you going to believe? You can’t, as the classics did, examine all things and retain what is good. To examine the thousands of pounds of printed matter that are produced every year would take more than one lifetime (and probably more than one salary, because you have to buy before you can examine). You’ll have to select who you are going to pay attention to.

Here is a candidate. Leter Brown is on our list of good guys: he is one of the two 1991 Humanists of the Year. Brown is the president of the World Watch Institute, a think-tank of specialists on the environment and the global economy. For the last seven years, he has been producing the annual State of the World, which is widely considered to be the final word on the earth, and which is published in more languages than Reader’s Digest.

–Anne Zeilstra

The Social Engineering of Vice

There are a number of things some people do to themselves and to consenting adults, that other people find absolutely disgusting. Smoking, chewing, dressing like the opposite sex, getting drunk, burning flags, getting high, terminating pregnancies, getting stoned, drooling over centerfolds, eating live cockles, eating dog, having affairs, buying sex: some people do it, other people would rather die first. We could call those habits vices. (Mind you, I am talking about things people do to themselves, or with grownups. Disgusting things people do to others, or with children, are crimes.)

Disgust is an unpleasurable sensation, and some people will want to remove the cause of it.

That can happen in a number of ways. Some will say that, free country or not, some things are just plain wrong, and they will point to an authority who says so, in some book that they themselves hold true.

Others will take a defensive approach, and will point out that nothing that anyone does in a society is an isolated incident, without consequences for the rest of us. So, they’re just looking out for their own best interest, and sorry pal, that means that you can’t practice your vice anymore.

And then there are people who see victims in the practitioners of vices. These people don’t really want to do these disgusting things, they’ll say, something makes them do it. We need to help them stop, because they can’t do it.

Who is a socially responsible person, and who is a moralistic busybody? I am not going to make that call now. What I can say is that some strategies to stop disgusting habits work better than others.

Simply declaring something illegal will not do the trick. That does not diminish the demand for the goods or services involved, and it substitutes legal suppliers with ones that do not abide by a law. That means that the disgusting habit will still be practiced, but now without government quality control.

We in this country should know that from experience, because at one time we did a daring and radical social experiment called the Prohibition: we made marketing of alcohol illegal. That did not stop many people from wanting a drink. It did create organized crime. There is an out of print book called “Theft of the Nation” (by D.R. Cressey, I think), the result of years of government investigation. In it, it is documented how the mafia was a piece of Sicilian folklore until the Prohibition provided the economies of scale that made it a big business. And what Prohibition did for the mafia, heroin has done for the Chinese tongs, and cocaine has done for the Colombians: it has made them rich and powerful.

Simply declaring something legal is not going to do the trick, either. We could say: liberty is the freedom to do anything you want, anything which does not limit another person’s liberty. It’s a free country. You can indulge in any vice you want, until it kills you for all we care; and if you don’t want to do it, nobody will force you. But that would not satisfy the disgusted part of the population.

This country also has seen a successful (although unplanned) strategy that has remarkably limited the use of one certain drug, and much more effectively than heavily enforced prohibition has done for cocaine and heroin.

Tobacco has never been prohibited. It’s distribution has been heavily supervised. Its consumption has been taxed to the limit, that is, to the point where it is felt financially, but not so far that the demand for cheap tobacco invites illegal distribution. Distributors have been prohibited from using the mass media to convince people of the merit of their product. And individuals have been stimulated to personally convince potential users that tobacco hurts, and actual users that life without tobacco is possible.

The combination of public policy and personal interaction will not totally eradicate tobacco use, and it will not eradicate any disgusting habit.

Eradication is not a real option in living systems. Control is.

–Anne Zeilstra

Dreaming: Peace With Justice

This is an excerpt from a talk at the March 1991 meeting of the Humanists of Utah

These remarks are mind, are not original, are a result of much reading, listening, asking questions of friends, even tiny bits of thinking. I have concentrated on goals rather than means of reaching these goals. Since there is little unanimity, and many alternatives, I am calling this path my “Dream for a Peace with Justice,” as peace alone is not enough.

Back in 1945, the United Nations grew from a dream into a reality. I was present at that historic San Francisco gathering. In my dream of a peace with justice, I envision a greatly strengthened United Nations truly functioning as a world government, as was that dream of a half century ago.

My emphasis is on peace with justice. Mere non-shooting is not enough; peace in my vision is positive.

Justice will require change–major change–in the way we think, in our life styles, in the way we interact with other people and societies, and our planet.

Peace with Justice means that there shall be no more billionaires in the Middle East–or the world–when so many millions have little or no material comfort of their own. The bounty of the region must be shared among all peoples of the region. The gap between rich and poor must be substantially narrowed.

  • The United Nations (or its successor) must be the dominant controlling force in international politics, much stronger than any nation. The UN must control all international military forces, including raising, training and deployment of all troops, and the manufacture and possession of all military munitions. In the transition process, all countries including the United States, the Soviet Union, and others, shall transfer control of their weapons and munitions factories to control of the U.N. Each nation would be authorized to maintain a national emergency relief force capable of assistance during natural disasters, such as floods, earthquakes, fires, hurricanes. The U.N. would supervise the removal and disposition of all military type weapons, and demobilization of excess military troops and material.
  • Five nations, including the United States, will have to give up their veto power in the Security Council.
  • The United States should pay up promptly all of its arrears to the U.N.
  • The United States should reaffirm its adherence to the decisions of the World Court. In the process, it should accept the decision against it in the case of mining Nicaraguan harbors, and pay the fine levied against us by that Court
  • An international Court for individual international criminals needs to be established.
  • An international code of conduct must be established for multinational corporations.

Far reaching as these changes may be, there is even a more far reaching change that everyone of us must consider making, that from the unrestrained growth concept of society, to a sustainable society. This may be a new concept to many; yet, it is as old as human society. In my opinion, it is an integral part of a world peace with justice. You say it’s too Utopian? That’s why I have called my comments a dream, a dream of what could be when peach with justice would be achieved in this global village of ours.

–Robert. Goff

Theocracy Threat

The issue of abortion is a religious controversy, and the powers of government should not be used to settle it. The anti-abortion campaign is the work of several religions seeking to give their religious doctrine the force of secular law.

Anti-abortionists base their opposition on the premise that aborting a fetus is ending a life, but the question of when life begins is an unresolved religious question. Some religions believe life begins at birth, some believe life begins at conception; others believe the individual life began even before physical conception. Prohibiting abortion, then, is government endorsement of a particular religious belief.

I hope the courts continue to uphold the principle of separation of church and government as put forth in the U.S. Constitution, and the Utah Constitution, by declaring Utah’s new abortion law an unconstitutional enactment of a religious doctrine. Both constitutions guarantee the rights of religions to advocate and governments to legislate. If the courts permit religions to legislate, our democracy will become a theocracy.

–Flo Wineriter

Readiness for Life?

When does a fetus become a person, and entitled to protection? Some people have the religious belief that they don’t even after birth.

In northeast Brazil, where life is tough, people are poor, and contraception and abortion are prohibited by the dominant religion, 200 out of 1,000 babies die within the first year of life (for all of Brazil, that number is 67, for the U.S. it is 10).

Nancy Scheper-Hughes reports that mothers there habitually judge each child on a rough scale of readiness for life. Alert, active children get food and medical attention; lethargic, passive, “ghostlike” children don’t, and are likely to die in infancy.

When that happens, the mothers do not show grief. Some say that the death was “Gods will,” and others that their baby has been called to heaven to become a “little angel.”

–Anne Zeilstra