We Don’t Deserve Builders

When I was 17, I saw the South Park movie in theaters. In one scene, Bill Gates — at that time, still the head of Microsoft — gets his head blown off by some military general. The theater erupted in applause. Hundreds of people cheered like a medieval crowd witnessing a beheading. It was chilling.

Fast forward twenty years. We get a leading Democratic presidential candidate demanding we “break up Big Tech.”

Thankfully, Republicans stepped up and…oh, wait, no…they mostly agreed. “Google is bigger now than Standard Oil was when it was broken up,” Senator Ted Cruz fumed.

President Obama famously said, “You didn’t build that.” But the real motto of 21st Century America is: you’d better not build that…and if you do, you’re gonna pay.

“It’s Time To Build”

I was thinking about that this morning after reading a powerful essay by a quintessential builder, Marc Andreessen: “It’s Time To Build.” Seriously, read the whole thing. But the basic idea is that our chaotic response to COVID-19 “is a failure of action, and specifically our widespread inability to *build*.”

We see this today with the things we urgently need but don’t have. We don’t have enough coronavirus tests, or test materials — including, amazingly, cotton swabs and common reagents. We don’t have enough ventilators, negative pressure rooms, and ICU beds. And we don’t have enough surgical masks, eye shields, and medical gowns — as I write this, New York City has put out a desperate call for rain ponchos to be used as medical gowns. Rain ponchos! In 2020! In America!

This, frankly, is terrifying.

There’s a scene at the beginning of my favorite novel, Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, where a railroad employee named Eddie Willers is reflecting on an oak tree from his childhood. “It had stood there for hundreds of years, and he thought it would always stand there.”

But one evening the oak tree is struck by lightning. Willers finds it the next morning.

It lay broken in half, and he looked into its trunk as into the mouth of a black tunnel. The tree was only an empty shell; its heart had rotted away long ago; there was nothing inside — just a thin gray dust that was being dispersed by the whim of the faintest wind. The living power had gone, and the shape it left had not been able to stand without it.

In the novel, the tree is a metaphor for a world running on the fumes of centuries of progress. It’s a world where the thinkers and builders who make progress possible have vanished, and it becomes only a matter of time before the rotted out trunk is revealed and society collapses.

What I think Marc is hitting on: Atlas’s metaphor is increasingly relevant to our own world.

Here are four charts from my colleague Alex Epstein’s book The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels. He calls them the “human flourishing hockey sticks.”

These graphs are and should be inspiring. We are the beneficiaries of two centuries of relentless progress.

But they should also be an ominous warning: the last two centuries were preceded by century after century after century of poverty and stagnation.

The most important question human beings face is what made the human flourishing hockey sticks possible — and what forces could potentially reverse the trend of rapid progress?

Because, make no mistake, progress isn’t automatic. While radical environmentalists drone on about a “no growth” economy, the reality is that human beings either progress or regress. We grow or we die.

Exhibit A: Venezuela. Once among the wealthiest countries in South America, its people are now coping with blackouts, medical shortages, and starvation. “We’ve returned to the Middle Ages,” said one.

No, America isn’t going to become Venezuela tomorrow (though it’s not impossible if the lockdowns continue much longer). But our inability to respond to COVID-19 has revealed we are far more vulnerable than we believed just a few months ago.

The tree trunk is rotted out.

America is closed for business

So how did we end up in a situation where AMERICA, the richest country in history, can’t even come up with sufficient cotton swabs and medical gowns? Marc explains:

We could have these things but we chose not to — specifically we chose not to have the mechanisms, the factories, the systems to make these things. We chose not to *build*.

Yes. So much yes. But why in the world would we choose not to build?

I mean, it seems crazy.

“Hey, wouldn’t it be great if we had more wealth and technology and housing and healthcare and opportunity for everyone?”

“That would be amazing!”

“Okay, we can totally build that. You in?”

“Nah. I think I’ll pass.”

The thing to understand is that we haven’t chosen not to build. Not explicitly and self-consciously. We’ve simply chosen to make America inhospitable to builders and to building.

It’s almost too painful to catalogue the litany of ways we’ve nailed the “closed for business” sign atop the entryway of America. My friend Jason Crawford captures the big picture, particularly the way our out-of-control regulatory state is strangling American progress. I’ll give just one example of my own.

A century ago, Americans would erect new skyscrapers and build new pipelines in a matter of months. As we speak, the Keystone XL pipeline has been held up for more than a decade. That’s an extreme case, but it’s hardly an outlier.

And don’t think fossil fuel projects are unique. The opposition isn’t only to what’s being built. It’s to building per se. Wind and solar projects have been opposed almost as often — including by so-called environmentalists.

To the extent we do have progress, it’s mainly in the more free areas of the economy (e.g., the tech sector that politicians like Elizabeth Warren and Ted Cruz want to control) — or it’s because of the endurance of builders willing to cut through the red tape — or it’s because of the builders willing to ignore the red tape and build anyway.

An eloquent example of this last came in the early days of the U.S.’s response to COVID-19. In January, Helen Y. Chu, a flu researcher at the University of Washington, asked government regulators for permission to adapt a flu test in order to test for COVID-19. The government said no, and Chu did it anyway. That’s courage. But it’s courage we have no right to expect.

The problem isn’t just government. It’s not as if Americans are demanding that we build and the government is getting in the way. Washington is merely reflecting our preferences. Anti-business sentiment is alive and well on both the left and the right.

Check your morality

So what’s behind the near-universal opposition to building? The near-universal moral framework our culture accepts.

Specifically, two ideas: it’s immoral to impact nature and it’s immoral to make money — it’s wrong to produce and it’s wrong to profit.

These two ideas have the same basic source: the near-universal belief that our basic moral obligation is to sacrifice. Human beings as a species are supposed to sacrifice ourselves to the rest of nature, and individual human beings are supposed to sacrifice ourselves to the rest of humanity.

Want to build a factory? Not if it displaces some endangered slug. Did you somehow manage to build a factory, create a lot of jobs, and turn out products — say, cotton swabs or medical gowns — that lots of people want to buy? That’s great! Unless you made a lot of money in the process, in which case you’re a greedy bastard who needs to take marching orders from selfless public servants like Elizabeth Warren and Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump.

Oh, and by the way, you are morally inferior to everyone who hasn’t built a business and hasn’t achieved productive success. They’ve achieved the one thing you haven’t — the only thing that entitles you to moral esteem: victimhood.

(“You hate the poor!” No. This isn’t about rich vs. poor. The same process works at every level of productive ability. The CEO may have to sacrifice to the plumber, but the plumber has to sacrifice for the fast food worker and the fast food worker has to sacrifice for the bum who can’t be bothered to work.)

We are living in the world our moral ideas created. We are living in a world we demanded our leaders create because we believed it was morally right.

And until we challenge the moral ideal of sacrifice, we don’t deserve better. So long as we penalize, demonize, and restrain builders, we don’t deserve to benefit from their work.

We don’t deserve the entrepreneurs pioneering new technologies. We don’t deserve the medical researchers who pioneer new medical tests. We don’t deserve the miners and drillers and welders and construction workers and electrical engineers and factory workers who do the physical building.

But that can all change. It comes down to two simple steps: say thank you, and get the hell out of their way.

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