Bon Mot

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Often discovering the right word to label an activity or situation or mindset helps in considering and discussing it. The word should be amenable to a fairly straightforward definition. Sometimes, though, finding it is a challenge. A trivial but instructive example comes from TV Chile’s “Pelotón.” In that “reality show,” ordinary people (not professional actors, although some are entertainers) undergo imitation military training. Recruits of both sexes sleep together in an austere barracks, use the same showers, and take part in physical competitions. The recruits vote their colleagues out one by one until one or two winners remain. In one episode a little girl in a little uniform gleefully puts the recruits through their drills and even asks personal questions of individual recruits. She commands them to lie on the ground, whereupon she jumps up and down on their stomachs. Now, what word labels such an offensive script? What comes to my mind is “cutesy-poo,” a term that is cutesy-poo itself. Precisely defining that term is difficult, but, like “obscenity,” you know the thing so labeled when you see it. (A related challenge, unmet by me so far, is how to describe the mind-set of someone who, like me, watches such stuff, even though only occasionally and desultorily.) A more important challenge is finding a word for the mindset of people who look to government, especially the federal government, and even the president (see Gene Healy, “The Cult of the Presidency”) to provide or subsidize everything good and suppress everything bad. Examples are comfortable retirement, healthcare, home ownership, wholesome food and drugs, adequate schools, broadband internet access, energy generation and conservation, transportation, and, on the other hand, obesity, addictive drugs, gambling (except in approved casinos or state lotteries), and even questionable practices in collegiate and professional sports. A politician with such a mindset does not understand how millions of persons and companies, trading among themselves, can satisfy the wants that they themselves consider most intense. He does not appreciate the invisible hand. He does not understand self-adjusting processes, such as someone’s decision to forgo a gas-heated swimming pool, or any pool at all, in view of the prices to be paid. Displaying alertness to problems and new technologies, he performs feats of routine originality in thinking of ways for a grandmotherly state to take charge — as by requiring that cars get 30 miles to the gallon, by imposing standards for building insulation, or by banning incandescent light bulbs, water-wasting toilets and laundry-washers, and pilot lights in gas appliances. He thinks up tax gimmicks to promote storm windows, solar heating, solar and wind power, and what not. Just as Chanticleer thought that his crowing made the sun rise, so voters and politicians with that mindset can scarcely conceive of how good results can occur without being conspicuously sought and arranged for. If they should occur anyway, they do not count — not, anyway, as anything for which anyone deserves credit; they are like facts of nature. When a problem has become politically fashionable, to suggest leaving its solution to private initiative seems callous and “negative.” The term that occurs to me for such a mindset is “scientism,” a term used by F.A. Hayek in “The Counter-Revolution of Science” (1952). Activist policy is considered scientific, the opposite of accidental and disorganized: it seeks scientifically planned social arrangements. Of course, this scientistic attitude misconceives actual science. I have defined “cutesy-poo” and “scientism” and “scientistic” only by context and examples. Framing explicit definitions remains a challenge for the reader and for me.

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