The Point of Vanishing Interest

Tacitus threw out a brief mention of the Black Book of Communism and the Cambodian Genocide Program a few days ago, and it got me thinking. I've often debated politics in various forums, and I would sometimes come across someone who would claim that the U.S. was actually the worst source of pain, suffering, and death in recent history. I've never quite known how to respond to such arguments, much less understand how someone can even say so with a straight face. This is not to minimize American mistakes. We've made our fair share, and many have suffered because of that. But when you look at the actual numbers, it's difficult to see how the U.S. even begins to approach the horrors of Communism or fascism. When I see the estimates that Communism has killed anywhere from 85 to 100 million people, I have to wonder what those who minimize these horrors are thinking.

Indeed, its quite difficult to even internalize that many deaths. I know the numbers, but they're not quite real or comprehensible to me. Perhaps the answer lies there.

C. Northcote Parkinson, in his excellent book Parkinson's Law, wrote a short essay called High Finance or The Point of Vanishing Interest (the entire book is superb; filled with wry observations about the nature of the world which have held up over time). In it, he speculates on the nature of financial committees.
People who understand high finance are of two kinds: those who have vast fortunes of their own and those who have nothing at all. To the actual millionaire a million dollars is something real and comprehensible. To the applied mathematician and the lecturer in economics (assuming both to be practically starving) a million dollars is at least as real as a thousand, they having never possessed either sum. But the world is full of people who fall between these two categories, knowing nothing of millions but well accustomed to think in thousands, and it is these that finance committees are mostly comprised.
He then postulates what might be termed the "Law of Triviality". Briefly stated, it means that the time spent on any item of the agenda will be in inverse proportion to the sum involved. Thus he concludes, after a number of humorous but fitting examples, that there is a point of vanishing interest where the committee can no longer comment with authority. Astonishingly, the amount of time that is spent on $10 million and on $10 may well be the same. There is clearly a space of time which suffices equally for the largest and smallest sums.

So what does that have to do with Communism? Joseph Stalin infamously said "One death is a tragedy; a million is a statistic." Its clear that he understood the same thing Parkinson understood: there are few who can internalize numbers that high. Thus when discussing, say, American and Soviet misdeeds of the past century, an incident in which millions of deaths are directly caused by the Soviet actions are given the same time and credence (actually, often significantly less time and credence) as an instance in which thousands of deaths are directly caused by U.S. actions. Given the lack of focus on the larger tragedies of the world, and the magnifying lens that is usually applied to U.S. policy, is it any wonder that there are those who believe the U.S. to be the single worst source of pain and misery in the world? Its not, and unfortunately, I see no way to counteract this sort of thinking.

The only consolation is that the U.S. is only strengthened by such excessive criticism; at least, I would hope we are - we are certainly not saints, and while I do believe our system to be superior to Communism (which ain't saying much, I know), it is far from perfect (in our struggle against communism during the Cold War, we have sacrificed many of our finest values in order to maintain stability, for instance). We can only improve if we are criticized, and it is a testament to our system that there is so much criticism because it is assumed that such a criticism can actually make a difference...

Update 7.14.03 - Something doesn't quite sit right with me about this essay. I don't exactly know how to explain it, but its, well, its such a clinical view of the situation. I'm only talking about numbers here, but there is a whole lot more to it than just a number of deaths, and I don't mean to imply otherwise.