While the game of polo teaches the eager student many
things, including balance, strategy and how to connect the wide end of a mallet
to a ball while galloping at full tilt, there is one lesson above all the
novice should learn: How to stop a runaway horse.
Of course, this lesson is valuable not just to the
aspiring poloista, but should be learned by anyone
planning on climbing on the back of a horse for any purpose. In polo, it is
just a bit more urgent because for most of the game, your horse is running in
a herd… and if there is one thing that horses running in a herd tend to
do, it is to keep on running.
Without a good understanding of the principle of being
able to reliably check the forward progress of your horse, the odds that your
horse will hit the end of the field and just keep going rise to an alarming
Now, some horse folks will tell you – as someone
once told me – that should your horse begin to run away, the trick to
stopping it is to pull hard on one rein, forcing its head to turn back toward
you. The theory, as I understand it, is that the horse will be discomfited by
not being able to see where it is running and so come to a stop.
As is the case with so many things in this world,
theory and reality can sometimes diverge. And so it was that I found myself
looking into the liquid brown eyes of my dear horse Winston facing back at
me… while charging at full speed off the end of the field and up a
nearby hill… his pace slowed not even a little by his lack of forward
sight. Figuring the situation was unlikely to improve by any measurable
amount, I decided to excuse myself from the drama by leaping off.
(Upon landing, I realized that I had learned two new
things, the first being that I didn't actually know how to stop a runaway
horse. And the other that the body has a remarkable capacity to mask the pain
from a fairly serious injury – in this case, a badly fractured arm.)
So, how do you stop a runaway horse?
Answering that question begins with understanding the
origins of an old saying, a popular derivation of which is, "He/she sure
has the bit in his/her teeth!"
This quip relates to the tendency of people to pull
back harder and harder on the reins of a horse beginning to run too fast,
resulting in an action not dissimilar to that of a water skier being towed by
a boat. The problem is that once the horse has the bit in its teeth (actually
at the back of its teeth), all it feels is a steady and somewhat
uncomfortable pressure in its mouth, but nothing that is going to cause it to
stop. And so off you go to your uncertain fate.
With apologies to card-carrying members of PETA, or
more nuanced horse riders who no doubt ride a more polite variety of horse
– a horse that would never dream of running away or that would be
brought quickly into line with a gentle tug and a "whoa" should it
do so – when it comes to runaway polo ponies caught up in their herd-inspired
passions, the correct way to get them to stop is to stand up in the stirrups,
loosen the reins slightly, then yank back hard. Then stand up and repeat the
process again, and again if necessary, until they
In other words, and I know this sounds a bit cruel, you
have to get their attention… in this case, by causing them bursts of
pain. Only then will they come to believe that the reward of running full
speed to wherever their desire is leading them is not worth the punishment,
and they will stop.
As far as any guilt one might feel about inflicting
such a stern treatment, the reality is that horses are always
dangerous… even when gently nibbling fresh grass from your palm. All it
takes is an errant insect landing in an ear or the slamming of a car door, and
the beast emerges, panicking and caring not a little who gets trampled. In
the case of a runaway horse, serious injury and untimely death are both
comfortably within the range of outcomes.
As a consequence, if you are not willing to do what it
may take to make a horse stop, then do yourself a favor and don't climb on
the back of the horse – any horse – in the first place.
So, what does this have to do with anything?
How to Stop a Runaway Horse
Last weekend, the people of Venezuela once again stepped
into the voting booths to return Hugo Chávez to power. This despite
tangible, up close and personally observable evidence that the country is
descending into the earthly equivalent of the seventh circle of hell.
I have been to Venezuela relatively recently, and I can
tell you from first-hand observations that the place is tortured and well on
the way to collapse. In an attempt to fool people, Chávez has created
Village in downtown Caracas, a small area with modern amenities and clean
streets. (A Venezuelan exile recently told me that a relative of his was
cornered by police in the sanitized area and told that in order to avoid
paying a fine, he had to wear a proper jacket when walking in the for-show
part of town.)
Outside of Caracas, however, the situation is
positively medieval, with vast hillsides covered in hovels serviced by rutted
dirt roads. While the government does its best to hide the muddy masses from
tourists, on my trip a key bridge was out between the modern airport and
Caracas, so I had to transit into areas Chávez would have preferred
tourists didn't see.
Of course, like so many things in an era of lackey
journalism, Western media sources are not to be entirely trusted. Thus, the
narrative about Chávez's many failures made his reelection seem in
question. Further on in this edition, our own Robert Ross digs a bit deeper
into the matter and finds data that helps explain Chávez's popularity
among the poor masses.
That said, the data and the experience on the ground
also show that the transitory benefits of applying the heavy hand of
socialism on the Venezuelan economy – more prominently, nationalizing
the oil industry – are quickly dissipating. And, per Dante's
seventh-circle reference, violence in the country is running high… in
fact, they now have one of the highest murder rates in the world.
Yet, people still voted to keep Chávez and his
socialist revolution in the driver's seat.
Unfortunately, this isn't an anomaly. In fact, despite
historical example after historical example pointing to the sure failure of
centrally controlled economies – and not a single example of a
long-term success – people around the world still gravitate to the
"From each according to his ability, to each
according to their need" should, if recalibrated to reflect historical
reality, read as "From each according to what the government can bleed,
until everyone is in need."
It is, to a thinking person, a puzzle. After all, it's
not like there aren't clear examples available of what makes an economy
vibrant. The rise of Hong Kong, for instance. In that case, a tiny country
poised on a rock with zero natural resources parlayed laissez-faire economic
policies to become the sixth-largest economy in the world at its peak (before
being taken back by the Chinese).
Then, no doubt taking stock of Hong Kong's success,
China itself adopted economic liberalization and, in doing so, set the stage
for an almost unimaginable level of success.
Since Deng's 1978 market reforms, the country's gross
domestic product has grown from being the world's 17th largest to
where it now stands, the second largest.
The magnitude of that accomplishment can only be fully
appreciated by considering that China's population in 1978 represented 22% of
the world's total. According to a paper by China scholar John Ross, in 1978,
per-capita GDP in China was only 42% of the global median. But by 2010, it
has risen to 299% of the median.
In other words, by shifting from a command economy,
hundreds of millions of Chinese moved from abject poverty into something
approximating a middle class… and did so in just 30 years, a blink of
the historical eye.
And yet, in Venezuela and in America and in Europe and
in most countries these days, large swaths of the population – a
majority, in fact – continue to cling to the notion that socialism is a
workable economic model. Specifically, that a cadre of academics can move
segments of the economy around like chess pieces and ultimately create some
sort of utopia where everyone shares more or less equally in the world's rich
"But we HAVE to do something for the people who
can't look after themselves," my dear friend and golf partner Charlie
commented the other day during a drive together to Boston.
"Yes, we do," I concurred. "So how about
making sure that first and foremost the economy is robust and humming along,
creating jobs and allowing people to save and build capital so that fewer
people need help in the first place, and so people can afford to help out
those actually in need?"
The problem with Charlie's perspective – a
perspective shared by far too many – is that it is just too optimistic.
As that statement lends itself to being misinterpreted, let me make it clear
that I like to walk on the sunny side of the street. Who doesn't?
But this idea that the world is somehow going to be
transformed into a workers' paradise by virtue of bureaucrats tinkering with
the markets is just not realistic.
Sorry to say, but the world is what you see: pockets of
calm and civility, but also large areas beset by trouble and strife.
"But shouldn't other governments have to pitch in
and help the US defeat the bad guys in the world?" asks the
"Not if they don't believe it is right to be
invading other countries," I answer.
"But there's bad guys,
the mad men in Iran, for example. If we don't stop them, they are going to
blow up Israel," he says.
"Are you so sure? Have you noticed that almost
none, and maybe none, of the Islamic suicide bombers have been old men? So,
what makes you think that the gray-bearded mullahs in Iran are going to
launch a nuke at Israel when they know beyond a shadow of a doubt that it
will lead to their near instantaneous immolation? And why are Israel's
"But what about the way those guys treat their
"Damn shame, but not our damn shame," I
reply. "Charlie, you are thinking of some other world than the one we
live in. A world that has never existed, and probably never will. But if it
is going to exist, it will come about not by the US constantly meddling with
– attacking – other countries. It will come about by the
government getting out of the business of nation-building and allow the free
exchange of goods, services and ideas between nations. Besides, the simple
truth is that we can't afford to continue playing Team America, World Police.
Charlie, I can assure you, is a stand-up guy. One of my
favorite people in this world. But his world view has been so shaped by
government propaganda and a biased, indoctrinated media that much of what he believes
has next to no basis in reality.
"But the government wouldn't lie to us. There were
riots in Libya about that movie trailer. Are you saying that it was a
terrorist attack? No way, we would have heard about it."
"That's exactly what I am saying. That a US
ambassador was killed in an attack that took place on 9/11 is way too much of
a coincidence – and the reports coming out are conflicting. No matter
what the White House and State Department are saying, it appears it was a
terrorist attack." (This was before the current revelations came out.)
"Aw, Dave, I really can't believe that."
Again, I drift.
The point I am making, or at least attempting to make,
is that we humans want to believe that a perfect world can exist. Whether it
is Venezuela's poor hoping that in his next six-year term Chávez's
socialist paradise will finally bear the promised fruit, or my friend
Charlie's staunch belief that public officials wouldn't lie and that with
just a bit of encouragement (and maybe a few bombs), the rest of the world
will fall in line with the American way of life, it's all much the same.
Thus, rather than accepting the world for what it is
and making the rational decision to adopt systems that are proven to benefit
the greatest number of people, but not benefit all equally because that's not
possible, the body politic chases rainbows to the detriment of everyone.
Which brings me full circle to the
You see, the negative consequences of utopianism are
apparent wherever we look these days.
- In the United States, in the form of aggressive
foreign policy and socialist domestic doctrines. Adding gum to the works
is the new religion of utopian environmentalism that is actively
wreaking havoc in the energy sector that remains so core to human
- In Europe, you can see it in the parasitic
bureaucrats in Brussels trying to control the continent's economy and,
in the process, actively destroying the host.
- In Pakistan, utopianism is manifested in social
strife and violent religiosity. Trying to force a religious straitjacket
onto everyone in a society is, after all, utopianism of the highest
I could, of course, go on… and on… and on.
But the point is, I hope, clear. Modern society, like a
runaway horse, has got the bit of utopianism in its teeth and is running full
speed toward an uncertain future. And, if history offers any guidance, a
The "bit in the teeth" metaphor is, I think,
a good one. That's because like a runaway horse, people can see the problems
and to varying degrees feel the pain. But as the situation has evolved in a
slow, long pull, we have grown accustomed to our circumstances, as painful as
they may be to many, and so feel no urgency to alter
our path even though we can see it is leading toward a precipice.
Instead, we cling to our hopes that the "next
guy" will fix the problems, even while encouraging the politicians to
vote down any restraints on entitlement programs or, in some segments of the
particularly panicked population, even any reduction in bankrupting levels of
In fact, pick a pocket of public spending, any pocket
at all, and you will find an outraged constituency ready to fire up the
petitions and pull out the placards to defend it. And right behind them, a
politician ready to wheel and deal to keep the spending intact.
Cut PBS! Don't you dare! I mean, what kind of utopian
paradise would this world be if I had to be subjected to commercial
interruptions in my Masterpiece Theater?
It is what it is. We are locked in the hot pursuit of
utopia and will remain so until the sharp pain begins. But, like a runaway
horse, it won't take just one episode of sharp pain, but several before
"we" finally get it and realize that the closest thing to utopia
– but not utopia itself – is only going to come about when we
humans are left to pursue our own peaceful interests with the absolute
minimum of government interference (or, in a place like Pakistan or most of
the Middle East, the maniacal mullahs).
It's All a
Matter of Attitudes
Not to go on, but I do think it is helpful when
discussing a topic as large as the global failure of human reasoning that we
try to understand something of what might be considered the mechanical
aspects of the thing. That's because, in order for real change to occur, the
detrimental and delusional attitudes discussed to this point ultimately must
be changed in a large enough percentage of the population to make a
And so, a quick word about attitudes (at least I hope
it's a quick word… I sincerely never know).
I know something about the topic because I spent an
hour a day for the better part of two years researching how the mind works, even
going so far as writing a very rough draft of (yet another unpublished) book
on the topic.
Attitudes play an essential role in creating behaviors.
In essence, we have an attitude about everything, attitudes that began being
formed pretty much from our first day on this planet. These attitudes are
based on life experiences, physical characteristics, socio-economic factors,
current priorities, what we read, what we hear, who we know and so on and so
Stating the obvious, the presence of attitudes is
persistent and endemic. Yet not all attitudes serve the same function. Daniel
Katz, in 1960, identified what he considered the four archetypical attitude
functions. In no particular order, they are:
- Utilitarian – these are attitudes that help people maximize
rewards and minimize punishments. As an example, a person living in a
small town in Pakistan will almost certainly adopt Islamic practices as
that will ensure they "fit in" and avoid potential
punishments, maybe even being shot in the head.
- Ego-defensive – this attitude is adopted as a way of
defending one's self-image. Ego-defensive attitudes are exemplified most
clearly by prejudicial attitudes towards minorities as such attitudes
tend to bolster the holder's self-image (ego) by viewing them as even further
down in the pecking order.
- Value-expressive – people tend to get satisfaction from
holding and expressing attitudes that reflect their central values and
self-image. Someone who sees themselves as a conservative Republican
might get satisfaction from supporting a balanced-budget amendment.
Someone who seems themselves as a caring liberal, on the other hand,
might get satisfaction from mandating that everyone is forced into a
government medical scheme.
- Knowledge – this refers to the adoption of attitudes
that are useful in organizing and understanding information and events.
For example, one way of making sense of complex sociopolitical
situations (such as in the Middle East) can be to, in effect, identify
the "good guys" and the "bad guys." In this case,
the attitude serves as, at least, a superficial mechanism for organizing
one's understanding of such situations.
Post-Katz, others have come along with additional
sub-sets of attitude, but I think for our purposes, and given the time
slipping away, the above attitude functions will suffice.
The question, then, is, how do you actually change an
attitude – especially one that is as firmly held as that of the
socialists or anyone with a serious case of utopianism? And that brings us to
what the researchers in this field term, "Agents of Change."
Following the same line-up as above, here's how the
academics say it can be done.
- For utilitarian attitudes: Katz suggests that utilitarian
attitudes become susceptible to change when the attitude (and related
activities) no longer effectively maximizes rewards and minimizes
punishments. Or when the existing rewards and punishments are changed.
Thus, in the case of the socialists, utilitarian attitudes may finally
change when the rewards of voting money out of the public trough begin
to be clearly outweighed by the negatives.
In other words, when the bit in your mouth is yanked hard, resulting in
acute pain… and it happens again and again, in time all but the
insane will realize that something fundamental has to change, and a new
utilitarian attitude (one that works) will be formed. You saw this
happen when the Berlin Wall came tumbling down.
As far as turning back the tide of utopianism, this is the single most
important attitude change that has to occur, but to complete the circle,
here's the rest…
- For ego-defensive attitudes: The agent of change would
typically involve removing the threat to the ego (thus removing the need
for self-defense) or even, according to Katz, giving a person insight
into their motivational dynamics. Today roughly half the population
looks upon the other half as delusional, and vice versa, and feels
morally superior as a result. At the point when everyone comes to the
same conclusion – that the problem is not the nature of
government, left or right, but its size and reach – I think
attitudes will change. But maybe that's just me being utopian.
- For value-expressive attitudes: change is possible when (a) the
underlying beliefs and self-images change (e.g., Karl Hess, the die-hard
Republican speech writer for Barry Goldwater who came to understand how
morally corrupt Washington was and walked out of Goldwater's office to
become a life-long Libertarian with strong anarchist tendencies); or (b)
when an alternative, superior means of expressing the values is
presented. In the case of the Libertarians, whose political policies
seem to me most in sync with a properly functioning economy, they need
to do a much better job of leveraging the current political morass into
a better understanding of their core values. Of course, their task in
changing attitudes might be made easier if their candidate, Gary
Johnson, were allowed to participate in the presidential debates…
but we don't live in that world.
- For knowledge-related attitudes: The key is to introduce
ambiguity, for example by pointing out disconnects when someone thought
to be "good" does something bad. Done correctly, a person can
come to the realization that the attitude they hold is not functioning
Not to stir anyone up, but in my conversation with Charlie, in response
to his comment that "we" – meaning the US – had to
enter WWII, I begged to differ, quoting Rick Maybury's
excellent book on that conflict and pointing out that by the time the US
entered the European war, the German army was already in Russia and the
snow had begun to fall. In other words, their army was doomed.
(By the way, if you haven't read Maybury's
books on WWI and WWII, do yourself a favor and
order them. Here's an Amazon link to his WWII book.)
In any event, there is a lot more to how attitudes work
and how they can be changed… but I have gone on too long already, and
as I am deep into my preparations for the big move to Argentina with family,
dogs and all, I will move along.
Before I do, however, I would just briefly restate my
core contention that we are on a runaway horse, a horse that has the bit in
its teeth and, despite the dull pain from failing policies, will continue in
the same direction until the pain becomes acute. At that point, society will
regroup and, informed by wrong-headed attitudes, try again to follow the same
socialist path, probably even doubling down, until the pain becomes acute
While no one can say how much pain we'll have to endure
before it's over, if Venezuela is any guide, it can be quite a bit.
But in time, the attitudes of the majority will change
– as they must – and the world will be able to find an
equilibrium that minimizes the government's meddling and allows free markets
to work their magic.
Then again, maybe I'm as much of a utopian as everyone