Why Human Achievement Hour is a Silly Idea

Posted on March 28, 2012

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To celebrate Human Achievement Hour, the Competitive Enterprise Institute trapped a tiny man in a lightbulb.

Today is human achievement hour. If you haven’t heard of human achievement hour, I can’t say I blame you. It turns out that the Competitive Enterprise Institute has designated the hour between 8:30 and 9:30 PM on March 28-the anniversary of the moon landing- to celebrate the fruits of human innovation. If you leave it there, this is actually a pretty good idea. Walking on another celestial body is pretty good for a bunch of overgrown flatworms, and we’ve accomplished a bunch of other cool stuff along the way. A day to celebrate that stuff would be a pretty good idea, actually.

Except that the Competitive Enterprise institute hasn’t proposed a day. They’ve proposed an hour. That’s a bit strange. If I’m going to celebrate human achievement then I’ll need at least an entire day. There have been a lot of human achievements, after all, and it’ll take a while to have a drink to celebrate all of them. Furthermore, holidays that don’t last an entire twenty-four hour period are always frustrating. I’m barely ever awake early enough on April Fools Day to prank anybody before the arbitrary cut-off time at noon. So why just one hour, Competitive Enterprise Institute?

“On March 31, some people will be sitting in the dark to express their “vote” for action on global climate change. Instead, you can join CEI and the thousands of people around the world who will be celebrating Human Achievement Hour (HAH). Leave your lights on to express your appreciation for the inventions and innovations that make today the best time to be alive and the recognition that future solutions require individual freedom not government coercion.”

Oh.

I’m not a huge fan of Earth Hour-I think it’s a great way to feel good about climate change without really doing anything substantial-but it makes sense for it to take place within the course of an hour because that is a length of time for which average first-worlders can be expected to forego certain modern conveniences. A day would be much too long for this. An hour, however, is far too short a time period to celebrate human achievements in any meaningful way, so Human Achievement Hour is really just a cheap and somewhat self-righteous dig at environmentalism. Of course we shouldn’t be surprised that libertarian think tanks oppose environmentalism, because a pure free market cannot address negative environmental externalities, and we shouldn’t be surprised that they use populist gimmicks to do so. What is surprising is that the specific gimmick that the CEA has chosen to oppose action on climate change is, to put it politely, incredibly stupid. Human Achievement hour is not only an ineffective attempt at a manufactured holiday-it actually undermines its intended purpose and the entire stated goal of the CEA.

First, let’s look at a few things that can qualify as human achievements worth celebrating. The obvious first choice is the moon landing, which the CEA explicitly references as part of the inspiration behind human achievement hour. The Apollo program-an initiative of the United States Government- cost a total of $29.3 billion in 1969 dollars. Adjusting for inflation and dividing by the population of the United States at that time, one finds that every single citizen paid an average of approximately $750 in today’s dollars to support the program. Rephrasing this using the kind of politically charged language favoured by the CEA, one could say that the government used state coercion to extort $750 of fairly earned money from private citizens so that a handful of men could walk on the moon and collect some rocks. Supporting the moon landing is not exactly the same as supporting free markets and limited government.

It’s the same story for most other things that could be called human achievements. The eradication of smallpox, which is certainly one of our greatest public health achievements-was accomplished through a combination of government sponsored vaccine development and coercive legislation mandating vaccination in several countries overseen by the WHO. Modern sanitation was invented by London’s Metropolitan Board of Works. The Human Genome Project-seen by some as a biological moon landing-was carried out with massive government sponsorship in order to avoid a private genome project that would have patented our genes. It certainly wasn’t a private for-profit corporation that built the pyramids. There are exceptions to this pattern, of course. Mass production comes to mind as a prominent example of a privately funded human achievement. The history of great human achievements, however, suggests that the government has an important role to play in organizing people and resources to contribute to do amazing things. Political motivations are simply better than the profit motive at producing human creations that inspire awe. With Human Achievement Hour, the CEA means to applaud our greatest achievements for precisely one hour, while they spend the remaining 8759 hours every year engaging in a relentless campaign to attack the government bodies that make such achievements possible.

It would, furthermore, be meaningless to celebrate human achievements without looking forward to the next one. In the spirit of the hour, then, I’m going to meditate briefly on what that could be. While I doubt that future generations will devote very many history book pages to iPads and sound-cancelling headphones, there is ample room for us to do things that will stand out in the memories of future generations. There are a lot of candidates for this, but I’m a greenie, so climate change stands out. If we are succcessful in curbing anthropogenic global warming, we will have applied all our best science, ethics, technological innovation, political ingenuity, and personal restraint to conquer a tendency towards environmental destruction that has doomed human countless human civilizations to failure.

Catapulting yourself onto a natural satellite suddenly seems a bit pedestrian when placed against the challenge of overcoming our own selfish natures, but the moon landing sets the appropriate precedent: it will require massive amounts of resources, ingenuity, and, yes, government coercion, to transition to a sustainable economy. I think that’s worth it, but regrettably, the CEA disagrees. They could, however, at least have the common decency be consistent. Human Achievement Hour, if taken to its logical conclusion, is an endorsement of government-sponsored carbon mitigation campaigns and as such it stands in opposition to the narrow-minded libertarianism that opposes them. Perhaps it makes sense to have it coincide with Earth Hour after all.

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