Eisenhower’s Second Farewell Warning

President Dwight Eisenhower’s 1961 Farewell Address includes one of the most quoted phrases in political rhetoric. He warned “against the acquisition of influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial-complex, whose growing influence could have “grave implications … [to] the very structure of our society.”  Ike’s warning remains relevant today, but much less heeded has been the speech’s second warning. Ike noted that the government’s need for ever more advanced defense technologies would mean a growing reliance on science and scientific advisors, noting:

Akin to, and largely responsible for the sweeping changes in our industrial-military posture, has been the technological revolution during recent decades. . . . A steadily increasing share is conducted for, by, or at the direction of, the Federal government.

That trend, he noted, might change the nature of the “free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery.” Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity.” Economic and power considerations might influence scientific research and the reporting of its findings, leading to the “domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money” – a trend that should be “gravely … regarded.”  Thus, while we should continue to hold “scientific research and discovery in respect . . . we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.” [emphases added]

Today, the clearest example of the risks arising from the scientific-technocratic elite is the global warming debate.  Consider the career trajectory of one of the leading climate alarmists, Penn State climatologist Michael Mann, who was implicated in the 2009 “ClimateGate” scandal, when leaked emails from a British university showed some of the world’s leading climatologists discussing how to manipulate data and suppress studies that contradicted their work. Far from being a rogue actor outside the scientific mainstream, Dr. Mann has served as principal or co-principal investigator on research projects funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and the Office of Naval Research.

Indeed, much research has been suppressed. Science does suggest that the Earth is slowly warming, but arguing that the sky isn’t falling is not much of strategy for securing research grants. As a result, research funding requests increasingly are justified on the Chicken Little paradigm. But, as our understanding of the complexities of our planet’s climate have improved, we have learned that other factors – the variability of the energy reaching us from the sun and the feedback effects, both positive and negative, resulting from additional warming and the clouding and other changes that produces – bring the picture painted by climate alarmists into question. Moreover, a warmer climate has positive effects as well as negative ones. To view change as always a bad thing is strange. This elite bias toward stasis can take rather strange forms, as noted in the recent Washington Post headline, “Spring Flowers Seen Earlier this Year: Climate Change Feared.”   

Instead of adopting the attitude of Candide’s Dr. Pangloss that this is the best of all possible worlds and that any change is detrimental, we should reexamine ways in which our fears of the future impede our developing the resiliency we need to meet the challenges that the future may bring.  If the world does become, say, warmer and wetter, agriculture would need to adapt.  Seen in that light, the environmentalist’s war against biotechnology – justified by the anti-scientific precautionary principle – is not only misguided, but deadly.  As the late political scientist Aaron Wildavsky noted, the greatest risk is the attempt to make the world risk-free. 

Green alarmists’ fervent efforts to demonize fossil fuels and impose carbon taxes or cap-and-trade have little to do with science. Affordable energy, the automobile, and the entrepreneurial ability to provide those innovations on a large scale have given us the freedom to live and work over much larger regions than in the past – and have democratized privileges once reserved to the wealthy. Europe invented the automobile, but Henry Ford put the world on wheels!

Much of the developing world is, at last, moving out of poverty. Higher energy prices would slow or even reverse that progress. Not surprisingly, many of these nations, including China and India, have signaled that they will reject such policies. They seek a brighter world, not one greened into perpetual poverty.

Eisenhower’s warning dovetails well with one made some years earlier by the Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter in his essay, “Can Capitalism Survive?” He warned that intellectual elites, driven by resentment of the market and their economic self-interest, would push for the expansion of the state and the increased regulation of the economy. A casual observer need only look around today to see how far they have succeeded. 

Mitch did us all a service by calling attention to this most significant Farewell Address by that underappreciated “dull, non-intellectual General.” His first warning has done much to restore an understanding of our Founders’ skepticism toward centralized power and crusades to remake the world.  Here Ike’s words recall those of an earlier American president, John Quincy Adams, who, in 1821, while still serving as Secretary of State, said in a speech to the House of Representatives:  “America does goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.”

America is now engaged in a significant reappraisal of foreign policy, true to Ike’s first warning. Our challenge now is to take to heart, to defend ourselves against the utopian quest to remake the world – not only abroad, but at home as well. With equal fervor, we need to heed Ike’s second warning, to gird ourselves for the fight against the equally utopian crusade led by that other complex – the scientific-technocratic elite – to forcibly create Heaven on Earth. 

Eisenhower’s Farewell Address reminds us that the risks to our future stem from the fatal conceit to which too many intellectuals are prone. Ike may not have been an intellectual, but he had seen firsthand the destruction that efforts to make the world anew could engender. He recognized the risks of seeking to do too much. Considering all this, like Mitch, I reach a similar conclusion: “I too, like Ike!”