The Rise of Nopanaceism

In the name of common sense, says C. W. Griffin, defenders of the status quo argue successfully against any form of progress. The author, a New York structural engineer and journalist, has published essays in several periodicals. This is his first appearance in the ATLANTIC.


HAVE you ever wished for a simple argument to silence the perpetual din raised by radicals and reactionaries, do-gooders and do-badders, and all the restless mob that can’t accept things as they are? Friends, there is such an argument, guaranteed to refute the most cunning peacemonger, draft-reformer, or smog-control crank. Its proponents are increasing, and they are practical men of affairs, guardians of the tried and true, defenders of trusted traditions. They preserve the elusive truth that the deepest wisdom is, with Hamlet, to “rather bear those ills we have than fly to others that we know not of.” You will find these worldly metaphysicians, whom I shall call Nopanaceists, everywhere from the corporate boardroom to the union hall.

One of the most prominent Nopanaceists is James M. Roche, president of General Motors, an organization whose welfare has been intimately associated with that of these United States. It has been Mr. Roche’s harsh duty to awaken sentimentalists concerned with ways of reducing the 49,000 annual deaths on our highways. In response to proposals for structural improvements to increase the safety of automobiles, Mr. Roche denounced critics of the automobile industry’s desultory safety program. “Safety is a highly complex problem and there are no simple solutions or pat panaceas,” Mr. Roche is quoted as saying in the Times. No one, of course, had remotely hinted that structural safety devices were a panacea. The most optimistic claim was an annual saving of 25,000 lives. A system of air bags, instantly inflated on impact to cushion the collision shock sustained by the car’s occupants, could cut annual highway fatalities in half, according to Dr. Carl Clark, a Martin Company biophysicist. But the Nopanaceist seldom claims that your proposal won’t achieve your goal; he claims that it won’t achieve his goal. And since he will accept nothing less than a panacea, his goal, by definition, is impossible.

In its campaign against firearms-registration laws, the gun lobby relies heavily on Nopanaccism. Typical of the gun-boosting editorials is a disquisition in the McPherson, Kansas, Sentinel. “Stopping MailOrder Guns Won’t Stop Crime,” says the headline to this homey, prairie version of Nopanaceism. No one, of course, ever claimed such miraculous results from legislation regulating mail-order firearms sales. Proponents of firearms-control laws merely cite the demonstrable effect of such laws on the homicide rates. In Dallas, for example, where gun traffic is uncontrolled, the proportionate number of killings committed with guns is more than five times higher than the number of such crimes in New York City, which has a relatively stringent law requiring licensing of pistols. Other statistics cited by J. Edgar Hoover indicate the efficacy of gun control in reducing killings. Yet the National Rifle Association says, “The record is clear — firearms registration laws even on a national or state basis have had no effect in reducing crime.” The Nopanaceist implication is equally clear: the saving of several hundred or several thousand lives annually lost because of the uncontrolled distribution of guns to madmen, criminals, and juveniles is a worthless endeavor.

Nopanaceism is an antidote to false hopes for the benefits of reapportioning rurally dominated state legislatures. Many political analysts believe that reapportionment on the one-man, one-vote principle, ordered by the Supreme Court in June, 1964, can make state legislatures more responsive to urban and suburban needs. In some states a farmer’s vote counts 100 times as much as a city dweller’s vote. Dominated by rural interests, state legislatures have proved dismal failures in controlling air and water pollution, providing urban mass transit, uprooting slums, and tackling other urban problems. Giving the city dweller equality with rural voters would make the state legislatures more responsive to urban needs.

Don’t be deceived by such mischievous simplicity. Reapportionment is no panacea. In the words of a learned Nopanaceist, Karl A. Lamb, of the University of California: “the adoption of equal population districts in state legislatures will make no magical change in the ability of cities to resolve the problems that beset them.” In recondite arguments I am unable to follow, Professor Lamb warns against “undue optimism” about “proposals for tinkering with the democratic machinery. . . . There are many problems created by the one-man, one-vote ruling.” Consider the consternation in Vermont, for example, where the legislature has not been reapportioned since 1797. Imagine the chaos introduced into that farmer-run state by the sudden advent of democracy!

Lest you think that political conservatives hold a monopoly on Nopanaceism, let me disabuse you with an example from the liberal Washington Post. Several years ago, the Post denounced a Fauquier County, Virginia, program through which female welfare recipients were sterilized if they requested it. To those unendowed with the superior wisdom of Nopanaceism, this voluntary family-limiting appears to be a partial solution to several problems — limiting the burdens on poor families that may already be overrun with unwanted children and on the public as well. At the least, it seems to limit the scope of a vast social problem that requires infinitely more effort than it is getting. To the Nopanaceist eyes of the Washington Post editorial writer, however, a public agency promoting voluntary sterilization, or even voluntary birth control, is guilty of unsportsmanlike conduct. “The welfare problems of society do not spring totally from excessive fecundity or abnormal illegitimacy of the poor and will not be solved by an attack on these phenomena. . . . Contraception, vasectomy and sterilization are instruments of voluntary family planning about which citizens differ and the knowledge of which should not be suppressed. They certainly do not hold forth any reasonable hope as a general solution of the tax burdens induced by the costs of welfare.”

New York City’s illegal twelve-day transportation workers’ strike in January, 1966, cost the local economy $1 billion and made life a daytime nightmare for millions of commuters. It inspired proposals for tightening existing laws against public employees’ strikes. Fortunately, however, union official Jerome Wurf demonstrated the utter futility of such a move with a brilliant Nopanaceist refutation: “there is a tendency to seek a short cut, a panacea, a hastily drawn law, which its sponsors hope may somehow banish the problem.”

The union leader’s warning completes the irrefrangible logic of the Nopanaceist’s reasons for doing nothing. By admonishing us against the tendency to seek a panacea, the Nopanaceist seems to chide us for attempting to achieve the impossible. Yet when he says of a proposal, “It’s no panacea,” he seems to chide us for not attempting the impossible. This ambivalence, however, merely displays the profound depths of Nopanaceist logic, which converges on its ineluctable conclusion from opposite directions. It is, of course, ridiculous to attempt the impossible. But can any red-blooded American settle for less? To ask this question is to answer it. Give me a panacea, or give me nothing. And thus, backed by a logic sublime in its stark simplicity — the impossibility of achieving the impossible, conjoined with the refusal to accept anything less — the Nopanaceist always exhorts us to do nothing.

Illuminating still another facet of Nopanaceist philosophy is a Wichita Sunday Eagle editorial entitled “Federal Spending: A Panacea or the Road to Ruin?” Since federal spending is obviously no panacea, the dichotomy posed by the headline decrees that it must be the road to ruin, and the editorial leaves little doubt that it is. “If our managed economy continues, this generation and the next may thrive on borrowed prosperity. Only time will tell whether the Keynesians are right and the Federal government can spend us all into Easy Street. ... If they are, well and good. If they aren’t, this Nation and its people at some point in the future are doomed to a crash that might well prove fatal to the American system.” Note how this passage drives home the Nopanaceist’s ancillary reasons for opposing non-panaceas. They will not only fail, they may bring disaster. Discretion, in the Nopanaceist’s eyes, is always the better part of valor.

As the reader has doubtless noted, there are no limits whatever to Nopanaceism; it rebuts any proposal for reform — anytime, anywhere. You want control of the spread of thermonuclear weapons through international agreements? Nonsense, old chap, it’s no panacea. There have always been wars and rumors of wars, and there always will be. Maybe this isn’t the best of all possible worlds, but it’s the best of all probable worlds. Remember, Rome wasn’t built in a day. Come to think of it, Rome should never have been built. It certainly was no panacea.