As commencements go, the Augsburg ceremony we attended yesterday didn’t insult our intelligence too badly. Oh, sure, we heard the plea to save the world by buying fair-trade coffee, but that came from the valedictorian — er, sorry, the representative — who earned her right to bloviate at the graduation through her hard work and volunteerism. The featured speaker, Dr. Jack Weatherford, gave a truly interesting and inspiring address, much more apolitical than anyone had a right to expect, and the Augsburg choir delivered a wonderful set of spirituals.
Still, I would have paid money to hear P.J. O’Rourke deliver the commencement address he envisions in today’s LA Times. Instead of the usual demands to change the world through activism, O’Rourke tells students that they will do far more good by engaging in commerce and channeling their efforts towards productivity rather than demonstrations:
Don’t chain yourself to a redwood tree. Instead, be a corporate lawyer and make $500,000 a year. No matter how much you cheat the IRS, you’ll still end up paying $100,000 in property, sales and excise taxes. That’s $100,000 to schools, sewers, roads, firefighters and police. You’ll be doing good for society. Does chaining yourself to a redwood tree do society $100,000 worth of good?
Idealists are also bullies. The idealist says, “I care more about the redwood trees than you do. I care so much I can’t eat. I can’t sleep. It broke up my marriage. And because I care more than you do, I’m a better person. And because I’m the better person, I have the right to boss you around.”
Get a pair of bolt cutters and liberate that tree.
Who does more for the redwoods and society anyway — the guy chained to a tree or the guy who founds the “Green Travel Redwood Tree-Hug Tour Company” and makes a million by turning redwoods into a tourist destination, a valuable resource that people will pay just to go look at?
So make your contribution by getting rich. Don’t be an idealist.
O’Rourke also gives a rather tidy Biblical repudiation of populism. He points out the text of the Tenth Commandment, which instructs people not to covet their neighbor’s assets, and says that it is rather singular within the Decalogue:
Here are God’s basic rules about how we should live, a brief list of sacred obligations and solemn moral precepts. And, right at the end of it we read, “Don’t envy your buddy because he has an ox or a donkey.” Why did that make the top 10? Why would God, with just 10 things to tell Moses, include jealousy about livestock?
Well, think about how important this commandment is to a community, to a nation, to a democracy. If you want a mule, if you want a pot roast, if you want a cleaning lady, don’t whine about what the people across the street have. Get rich and get your own.
And of course, the most amusing part of O’Rourke’s “speech” is that the very people in which the community has invested the best education are the same people most in need of this reminder. Too many of them, including the starry-eyed fair-trade-coffee advocate, believe that they know the morally righteous individuals that markets should favor, and want to distort markets as much as possible to deliver what they see as the just result. Fair-trade coffee at least gives a market-based solution, which is why it’s more amusing than objectionable, but many will demand top-down government control of markets, run by enlightened college graduates such as themselves, to remove any individual choice in markets.
O’Rourke offers an analogy sure to resonate with college students everywhere. Just because he eats all the slices of a Domino’s pizza, it doesn’t force others in the room to eat the box. It just means that more pizzas will be bought, which leads to more commerce, more jobs, and better economies. O’Rourke might not get invited to the next party, but hungrier people do not have to eat the box.
America has proven O’Rourke correct, and not just America, either. Nations that protect property rights and individual liberty do not have massive famines and genocidal starvation. Nations which attempt the kind of ends-focused top-down government control of property and markets wind up with terrible poverty, epidemic starvation, and misery on a massive scale. Unfortunately, most college graduates these days don’t learn about those truths until well after they have separated themselves from Academia.