Sunday, April 08, 2007

A Missed Opportunity

If you haven’t received the following e-mail yet, you probably will. It’s an old Soviet fable re-enacted in an Arkansas classroom as described by Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee in 2005.

In September of 2005, a social studies schoolteacher from Arkansas did something not to be forgotten. On the first day of school, with permission of the school superintendent, the principal, and the building supervisor, she took all of the desks out of the classroom. The kids came into first period, they walked in; there were no desks. They obviously looked around and said, "Where's our desks?"

The teacher said, "You can't have a desk until you tell me how you earn them."

They thought, "Well, maybe it's our grades."

"No," she said.

"Maybe it's our behavior."

And she told them, "No, it's not even your behavior."

And so they came and went in the first period, still no desks in the classroom. Second period, same thing. Third period. By early afternoon television news crews had gathered in the class to find out about this
crazy teacher who had taken all the desks out of the classroom. The last period of the day, the instructor gathered her class.

They were at this time sitting on the floor around the sides of the room. She said, "Throughout the day no one has really understood how you earn the desks that sit in this classroom ordinarily. Now I'm going to tell

She went over to the door of her classroom and opened it, and as she did 27 U.S. veterans, wearing their uniforms, walked into that classroom, each one carrying a school desk. And they placed those school desks in rows, and then they stood along the wall. By the time they had finished placing the desks, those kids for the first time I think perhaps in their lives understood how they earned those desks.

Their teacher said, "You don't have to earn those desks. These guys did it for you. They put them out there for you, but it's up to you to sit here responsibly, to learn, to be good students and good citizens, because they paid a price for you to have that desk, and don't ever forget it."

This is a poignant tribute to veterans who certainly have done their part to keep empirical governments and fascism at bay. But, most likely due to its Soviet roots, the teacher’s enthusiastic tribute obscured a far greater miracle and the true story of how those desks came to be in that classroom.

Somewhere in Taiwan, hundreds of workers labored to transform iron ore into steel, roll, cut, and form that steel into the various parts of the desk, and weld the numerous pieces together. Other workers fabricated the hardware – screws, rivets, and bolts – and still other workers molded and trimmed the plastic seats. All these workers used machines and tools built by other workers (in China, India, Viet Nam, and the United States) in factories built by still other Taiwanese workers. The production processes, heating, cooling, and lighting of the factories were driven by electricity generated in power plants manned by other workers burning coal mined by more workers.

The plastic and steel parts were loaded on container ships by crane operators, and the sailors navigated the Pacific ocean to Los Angeles or Seattle, where other crane operators unloaded the ships. Truck drivers hauled the parts to assembly points, where workers combined the steel and plastic with pressboard tops manufactured by workers in Canada and covered in laminates manufactured in the United States. The workers packed the individual desks in new shipping cartons – manufactured by some other company and its employees – with plastic bags of hardware, including rubber feet made from petroleum products from around the world and gum harvested by Brazilian farmers.

The desks were stacked in the warehouse by a forktruck operator until trucks with new drivers came to haul them to distribution warehouses and eventually on to the school in Arkansas. At the school, maintenance men unpacked the cartons and assembled the desks just in time for the new school year.

The great miracle and true story of the school desks involves hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of complete strangers – factory workers, miners, sailors, truck drivers, machinists, managers, engineers, carpenters, lumberjacks, doctors, dentists, grocers, software developers, electricians, salesmen, graphic designers, bankers, and entrepreneurs. Each of them, motivated only by what they thought best for themselves and their families, accomplished what all the central planners and militaries in the world could not. All these strangers from all these nations voluntarily and peacefully (albeit unconsciously) cooperated to put those desks in that classroom and increased the real and total wealth of the world’s population at every step of the way.

This free, open, and voluntary trade happens every day, all over the world without bullets or bloodshed. Only when governments interfere in this system is military force necessitated. The short history of the US government (alternatively dominated, almost from the beginning, by leftists and mercantilists) is rife with direct and indirect intervention in free trade. In each instance the results have been disastrous and, in each instance, the US military has been called upon to clean up the mess and pick up the pieces.

This Arkansas teacher could have taken the opportunity to explain the miracle of free trade and the terrible consequences of government intervention in a peaceful, voluntary process. Perhaps that knowledge would kindle a renewed spirit of freedom and liberty and someday result in the end of the interventionist policies of the US government and no need for the grandchildren of the veterans to answer, once again, the call of a nation in distress.

That’s the best tribute a veteran can get.