Those who know me are aware that I am a slow learner – a pedantic, trudging engineer who likes toys and shiny things. It is a thread woven through the fabric of my being. In the late 1990s, I had the privilege of attending the big Atlas Foundation meeting back East courtesy of an innovative free thinker, Ricardo Valenzuela. Among those people, I found myself at home with the ideas and philosophies that had nettled my soul and kept me restless for decades before and I knew for a certainty that I was not alone with my books and philosophy. Many of the people I met and admired were going on from the Atlas conference to the Mont Pelerin Society meeting. My chosen profession, Cold War itinerant engineer supporting the government, was a source of unabated internal conflict; the locus of my personal philosophy at odds with the locus of my profession.
A few days ago I read Alberto Benegas-Lynch, Jr.’s article On Selling Classical Liberalism in this month’s The Freeman published by FEE. As a former board member of the Mont Pelerin Society, it seemed reasonable that he might provide some insight in how to communicate ‘my’ thoughts without someone throwing something at me. The insight was definitely there. Benegas-Lynch’s observations on the difference between selling goods and ideas were as clear as the finest crystal and as well crafted. Why did understanding come now, when I am well into my sixth decade, rather than the time I most needed it – on Bikini when Charles asked me for advice and I had little to give.
As the day surrendered its light and heat that summer in 1991, the stars reported to their appointed posts to cast the world in a less harsh relief. About an hour earlier, I had left my teammates barbecuing the tuna caught on the last trip out in the boat. I set out from the project camp at a good clip headed for my favorite spot on the ocean side of the north end of Bikini Atoll. It was a bit of a hike and no one would miss me for a long time; tales and beer were already flowing and the fish was on the barby. It was a rare chance for private reflection. The outer reef broke the waves and the tide was low. The tidal pool I occupied was warm and the gentle surges from the great Pacific soothed my tired, aching body. My mind focused on what I would say to Charles the next day.
Charles would be a leader of his people one day, but for now he worked for the DOE Marshall Islands program; one of the operations I managed as a government contractor. The program manager liked and respected Charles and he was one of the first people I had met when I had visited the program several years before. Usually Charles asked functional questions with simple answers such as “Do I have to wear sun screen since my skin is dark already?” “Yes!” This day was different.
Waiting for my buddy and I as we finished our dive was Charles. As a master diver, he usually dove with us, but not this day. As I was excitedly describing the beautiful black tip shark we’d seen, I realized Charles had something on his mind and shut up. He asked to speak privately. An odd request, as Charles would normally have taken serious operational issues to the program manager.
Alone in the office, Charles unwound the tale of the tribulations of the people of Bikini Atoll from their first removal in 1946 through their exiles and relocations during the atmospheric
nuclear tests, to their resettlement and removal, once again, from their beloved atoll. In keeping with the oral traditions of the people of Bikini, he provided a lengthy and fascinating background that allowed me to see Bikini’s history through its peoples’ eyes. Sometime later, when he had finished his tale, he asked me his question “What do I tell my people about how we should live?” The air left the room and I had trouble breathing. I had no idea how to answer this question.
I sat in my pool hoping for a sudden burst of wisdom. I had nothing and I was angry. My government had removed these people from their atoll and addicted them to spam, sodas, cigarettes and booze and forced them into temporary facilities on various fly-infested, over-crowded atolls for nearly fifty years. Generations had come and gone, the people of Bikini could no longer make a living trading coconuts husks even if they did remember how. Thankfully, their attorney, Jonathan Weisgall, was smart and driven, but even he couldn’t get justice. All 167 Bikinians were evacuated in 1946. They boarded the U.S.LST 861 for a one-way journey to Rongerik Atoll, but today they number about 1,400. Scientists say that Bikini Atoll will only support about 240 folks. When they resettle, what will the other 1,160 do? Where will they go? Who will choose who returns and who doesn’t?
The next day I met with Charles, as promised. I told him that I had no answers and offered what little I had learned in life about taking the big operations in stride and one step at a time; lame, but the best I could offer. Would that I could have offered him Dr. Benegas-Lynch’s sage words, “The trust of classical liberals in freedom is based not only on iterative experiences of success, but in the need for each person to decide how his or her own life is to be lived. Instead of being domesticated by governments, people can govern themselves and determine their own destinies, which amounts in any case to an unplanned harmony.”
Perhaps it is as Benegas-Lynch says, “As Hayek explains, ideas are a complex phenomenon that require a difficult and long chain of reasoning—especially in the field of social sciences where there are no laboratory experiments.”