Serving the People

Like his father and grandfather before him, North Korea’s current despot, Kim Jong Un does a lot of looking; and then he issues a lot of field guidance.

Recently, after visiting the Mangyongdae Funfair amusement park in the capital city of Pyongyang, he issued a strong and detailed criticism over the poor upkeep of the park. He found that park operators did not have a “proper spirit of serving the people.”

Kim Jong Un looking

Of course, for much of the population of North Korea, whose main concern is finding enough food for their children each day, a holiday at even a broken down amusement park would be a welcome respite from their daily hardships. But those who live outside the capital have neither means to travel to the city nor permission to do so.

The aim of Kim’s visit, according to North Korean observers, is to burnish his image as a “competent and detail-oriented leader interested in citizens’ welfare.”

That he needs to burnish his image points to the problem. Most North Koreans believe that their leadership has the wisdom to literally control every aspect of the economy and their lives and, indeed, should have the power to do so. It does not matter that millions have starved to death and that most live lives of unimagined hardships with no freedom. They believe that however terrible their suffering is, it would be worse if the Kim dynasty was not providing benevolent guidance.

In her outstanding book Nothing to Envy, Barbara Demick paints a chilling portrait of the everyday lives of ordinary North Koreans. When Kim Jong Un’s grandfather, mass murderer Kim Il-sung, passed in 1994, the outpouring of grief was genuine. Demick reports on one North Korean screaming at the news: “How are we going to live? What are we going to do without our marshal?”

I wish I could say otherwise, but the attitude of many ordinary Americans is different in degree but not in kind. They too believe that their leaders should have and can have a vision that directs the economy.

They seem to have little understanding that their welfare depends upon the billions of transactions that occur every day without “guidance” between people who are guided by their own motives and needs.

The farmer grows his wheat with no knowledge of the consumers who will eat his bread. Decision-makers at Trader Joe’s decide to open up a new store without any input from President Obama. Although it is summer, buyers at L.L. Bean have already placed orders for the merchandise they will carry in their winter catalog. They consulted no government official in order to meet what they think is the most urgent needs of their buyers. Every day millions of people, without any central commands and often with very little knowledge of who will benefit by their efforts, work with enthusiasm and ingenuity; and in the end, they serve the people.

Consider this small example: Today at our home there is a gentleman using his brush hog to cut down young trees and scrub that are encroaching on a meadow. Before this week, I had never heard of a brush hog.  A brush hog is pulled by a farm tractor; it cuts what an ordinary yard tractor can’t handle. I have no idea who invented the brush hog, or who manufacturers them, or even where to buy one. I have no idea why Tommy decided to get into the brush-clearing business. But without any central direction, Tommy improves the lives of his customers.

In his classic essay “Individualism: True and False,” Nobel Laureate Friedrich Hayek describes the limits to what any person can know and the motives that guide an individual’s actions:

[There] is the constitutional limitation of man’s knowledge and interests, the fact that he cannot know more than a tiny part of the whole of society and that therefore all that can enter into his motives are the immediate effects which his actions will have in the sphere he knows. All the possible differences in men’s moral attitudes amount to little, so far as their significance for social organization is concerned, compared with the fact that all man’s mind can effectively comprehend are the facts of the narrow circle of which he is the center; that, whether he is completely selfish or the most perfect altruist, the human needs for which he can effectively care are an almost negligible fraction of the needs of all members of society. The real question, therefore, is not whether man is, or ought to be, guided by selfish motives but whether we can allow him to be guided in his actions by those immediate consequences which he can know and care for or whether he ought to be made to do what seems appropriate to somebody else who is supposed to possess a fuller comprehension of the significance of these actions to society as a whole.

In other words, no matter how compassionate President Obama and his advisers are, their minds are able to comprehend only a tiny fraction of the facts needed to improve your welfare. Thus, your welfare is diminished by any actions they take that interfere with the non-coerced, voluntary decisions that you would make.

Consider this sampler of governmental decisions: You are forced to subsidize favored industries and political cronies. You are prohibited from buying unpasteurized milk from an Amish farmer. You have no option but to grant a monopoly to the Federal Reserve which has made a full-time job out of debasing the U.S. currency in order to transfer your wealth to favored financial institutions.

So let’s be clear, given the powers that they have assumed, American politicians—like North Korean politicians—cannot be serving the people. Because they are not serving the people, they need image makers to convince us they are serving the people. Yes, the minds of Americans—like the minds of North Korean—have been shaped by propaganda to believe in a socially shared reality that allows government to exercise destructive power over their lives. And if you want to know the extreme of where that will lead us, read any of the fine books that report on life in North Korea.

4 Responses to Serving the People

  1. This is a great blog post Barry, thank you! I’m reminded of a revelation my eldest William had today. He was playing with something called magic sand, essentially it is sand you can put in water to create things and when you scoop it out it is dry. He struggled to create the coral like structures that they do so easily on the commercial and afterwards says to me “they make it look so easy on the commercial, but they’re really just trying to sell more stuff.” Out of the mouths of babes! I’m thankful that he is learning at a young age that what we “see” is not necessarily truthful and that the purpose of many things (such as commercials) is to just sell more stuff – whether that “stuff” be tangible products or political propaganda.

    • Barry Brownstein says:

      Thanks, Sherri. William continues to have wonderful insights; he really does have a clear mind.

      It is amazing how quickly adults adopt as their own opinions propaganda they listen to. Of course, they are not victims–they want to have those opinions.

  2. Jim D. says:

    I find that by the time someone worries about something, its already too late. If you worry about your reputation, you’ve already done something to damage it. By the time a firm worries about its employees morale they likely already started leaving in droves. In the same bent, if a politician needs to “polish their image”, they would be best served by focusing on what tarnished it in the first place.

    • Barry Brownstein says:

      Thanks, Jim for your astute comments. What is astonishing how many individuals are seduced by an image instead of substance.

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