Baboons, Government, and the War on Science

Looking ahead to the mid-terms and 2016, conservatives are not going to be able to resist the cliché that “government doesn’t do [something] very well.”  But a much better way to make the point with voters is to say that government is “incapable.”

Which is why the War on Poverty has cost trillions over fifty years and has not reduced poverty; why, after the billions spent by the taxpayer on WIC stamps, drug-addicted single mothers are still not feeding their children nutritious home-cooked meals; and why recent government housing policies meant to give everybody a home of their own have atomized the housing market.  We all know the drill.  If laid end to end, the list of failed federal programs intended to help people would stretch across ten time zones.

A powerful analogy may be drawn from Robert Ardrey, writing in African Genesis about the inability of baboons to count above the number three.  Hungry baboon scouts in the Palala (Lephalala) of South Africa would watch one man with a gun walk into an orchard and wait for him to walk out before signaling their troop that it was safe to raid the fruit.  If two armed men went in they’d count two out before signaling, and the same with three men.  But three was the biggest number they could conceive of, so if four or five walked in, the scouts would count the first three coming out, sound the all-clear, and their troop would be shot. 

Similarly, government has a limited range of ability beyond which it cannot operate effectively.  For Americans, this point has enormous significance, because our founding fathers were pretty smart, and we usually find that government is effective only within the range of its constitutionally authorized activities.  For example, the U.S. Marine Corps works really well, while AmeriCorps doesn’t.

This is because government moving beyond its constitutional (natural) limits requires it to do something that is not in its DNA.  But this issue, the matter of the government going beyond its legal limits to “help” someone, is the one most people have the most trouble understanding.  Government is powerful, commands vast resources, and has some pretty smart people in it from time to time, so why can’t it lift people up out of poverty? 

To confuse the issue a bit, it does look like the government is successful in doing that on occasion.  But in examining the issue further we find that government is only increasing the material condition of some people while reducing the condition of others.  With no net change upward for society.  Indeed, there is usually a net reduction, in the same way as how transfusing blood from one’s right arm to one’s left with a leaky hose only weakens the body’s entire system.

Because it’s not in the government’s DNA any more than it’s in a baboon’s DNA to count above the number three. 

Instead, it takes something else to improve the human condition – just what you can see quite clearly from our experience with the nineteenth century.  The greatest century that ever was.  Living standards quadrupled and quadrupled again in western Europe and North America.  Life expectancy doubled.  Families that began that century drawing water from the well, walking, or being pulled around by horsepower ended it with more and more of them enjoying hot and cold running water inside their homes, speeding across the countryside on trains, or planning to buy one of those horseless carriages that had begun rattling their way across the countryside.  The nineteenth century produced the first effective drugs and surgical procedures.  It brought gigantic advances in public health, anesthetics, and commercially available fertilizers.  It introduced new products like rubber and bakelite, and new inventions like the telegraph, electric light, mechanical harvesters, gang plows, and telephones.  Steel, which could cost seven dollars a pound in 1800, dropped to three pounds for two cents by 1900, and ten thousand products – buckets, stoves, agricultural tools, belt buckles, guns and knives and forks – ended their four-thousand-year history of being made by hand out of difficult to work or short-lived materials and were now made of more durable steel in factories...costing a tenth, then a hundredth of what they had.

Everybody who lived in those times knew what brought this sudden change in the human condition about – and it wasn’t government.  It was advances in science – indeed, the invention, we might say, of science coupled with the marvelous cast of characters who applied this new discipline to our lives. 

If your eyes are open to the real world, you can no more imagine government – which, after all, can only order people around – telling some college dropout to invent the personal computer than you can a Roman emperor ordering the invention of gunpowder in order repel the barbarians.  It doesn’t work that way. 

Yet we have millions and millions of voters in this country whom British historian Paul Johnson describes in his History of the Modern World as “secular utopianists.”  People who believe that the right blend of government taxes and takeovers, government subsidies, and government regulation can create a society absent want, sorrow, injustice, and inequality, with ever-increasing living standards.

Why is that?

Press the left-wing liberal with the question, and he’ll stumble off like a bird dragging a wing hoping to lure a predator away from its nest.  Only the liberal is trying to distract you from a fiction created over a hundred years ago by Friedrich Engels, who publicized Karl Marx’s theories as “Scientific Socialism.”  A term Marx himself never used.  And a term no objective observer would ever apply to his turgid, foundationless theories.  But Engels’s ploy worked, and the word scientific would go on to lead endless numbers of lemmings off socialism’s cliff.

Because people know that science works. 

Yet science is not and never has been the idiosyncratic meanderings of some angry personality.  It’s the formulation of a hypothesis – that is, a theory of how something works – then the design of experiments to test that hypothesis that are, indeed must be, capable of replication by others.  Since Karl Marx would never agree to have his theories tested – indeed, would scream, “I will annihilate you” at anyone who questioned them – Marxism, as Marx well knew, wasn’t science.  It was government. 

And that’s all his theories sum up to be.  More government.  More and more of the very thing that cannot improve people’s lives – only darken them. 

But since science still has much of the cachet it once enjoyed, in addition to pointing our government’s genetic inabilities, it might also behoove us to point out that government's Marxist-inspired social and economic laws and regulations are not science at all.  Prefix every description of every one of these programs with the term “unscientific.”  The “unscientific War On Poverty,” “unscientific DREAM Act,” “unscientific minimum wage," “unscientific EPA rules.”  That ought to pry a few Secular Utopianists loose from their misconceptions.

We might even take a page from the left-wing liberal playbook and shout out over and over again, at every opportunity, that the Democrats have declared a “War on Science.”

Richard F. Miniter is the author of The Things I Want Most, Random House, BDD.  He lives and writes and embarrasses his grandchildren as much as he can in the colonial-era hamlet of Stone Ridge, New York.  He blogs at and can also be reached at