It was Spring 2015 in the heart of New York City. I had just transferred to my new school after having attended a small, out-of-the-way college that nobody has ever heard of, in a state that many don’t even know exist (WV). And now I was here – at one of the most prestigious schools in the world, right in the roaring bustle of Manhattan, and surrounded by high-profile speaking events, guest lecturers, and tenured professors who all had their fair share of fame and recognition. As such, the school administration tended to hype up and advertise these people and events as major attractions, even within the campus community itself. I still remember when Arianna Huffington came to speak there, with a line all the way across the campus and around the corner to see her; Or Hillary Clinton, who practically shut down the whole place upon her arrival.
And yet, I noticed a trend fairly early on in that the politics of all the most
highly publicized figures typically appeared to be very liberal. Now this was merely coincidence, since liberal politics are just more or the less the norm in the city. But what would happen, I wondered, if someone out-of-step with that norm also came to my campus to speak? Would the same fanfare precede and accompany him/her?
I got my answer during that very first semester at my new school. John Stossel, one of the most decorated and straight-shooting journalists of our generation, had been invited by the Columbia College Republicans to speak at an event that the group had reserved an entire observatory to host. By all accounts, student-fueled or not, this was every bit as merited and large-scale an event as the visit by Huffington, herself also a journalist. And yet, there was no similar level of advertisement or hype for Stossel. In fact, I almost missed the appearance altogether due to its lack of mention on all the official school event calendars.
My only saving grace was that I happened to be at the right place at the right time on campus to see a custom-printed flyer announcing the event tacked to a cork board dedicated to student advertisements. Had it not been for this propitious accident, I would have likely never known that Stossel ever came to my school in any capacity. Whether or not it was conscious or not, it became obvious to me that my school had a clear preference for only those famous guests who already agreed with a certain political outlook – and it wasn’t the one held by Mr. Stossel.
But nevertheless, I did not, in fact, miss out on the chance to go see the event, which I am still very happy for having gotten the chance to do. And despite the fact that the large hall with the capacity for hundreds only ended up housing a couple dozen (after all, with marketing like that, how could it have attracted much more?), the evening went off without a hitch. That is, almost. One instance did, in fact, occur that could have upheaved the calm and respectful attitude in the room, but fortunately Mr. Stossel handled it all with tremendous confidence and intelligence.
Let’s take a step back to explain the course of events that led to this happening before we delineate what it in fact was. During Stossel’s main presentation (in which he gave his autobiographical account of his journey from liberal media darling to libertarian outcast over the course of his career and research), he showed a slide of a graph demonstrating the rate of workplace accidents in the U.S. labor force before and after the formation of OSHA (the Occupational Safety and Health Administration) – what he found as a result of further research (and became apparent to the statistically literate among the crowd this day, as well) was that the U.S. Government had passed OSHA during a time of steady decline in workplace incidents, essentially having no effect on said rate one way or the other, but still took credit for the decline anyway. How did it do so? Well, it released its own version of the graph, of course, which conveniently just happened to begin right at the moment of OSHA’s passing. The more honest thing to do would have been to show the trend before OSHA’s passing on the same graph, just as Stossel did independently, but then, that would discredit the case that government intervention is needed in the market – and we couldn’t have that, could we?
I shall never forget Stossel’s summation of this finding: “Government is like somebody who jumps in front of a parade already in procession and pretends to be its leader.”
So, the presentation went on smoothly and made it all the way to the Q&A section. And that’s when it happened – two students stood up from within the crowd, indecorously smug and valiant in their demeanors, and dramatically proclaimed that they were members of the College Democrats chapter on campus. They then challenged Stossel on his OSHA claim from earlier, apparently with the goal of “debunking” him in their noggins. However, what they took issue with was not so clear: “How can you say that OSHA didn’t do any good when you clearly saw yourself on the graph you provided that workplace injuries and deaths did go down after it was passed?”
Stossel once again went back to the same graph. “It’s obvious, isn’t it?” The response from the College Democrats members, unfortunately, were just blank stares. When it became obvious to everyone else in the room that the two were struggling, some of the fellow audience members – College Republicans and Columbia Libertarians – leaned in to try and help them understand what they were looking at.
“You have to look at what came before,” one said. “It’s showing a downward trend prior to OSHA,” said another. And still yet, the vacant expressions persisted. The irony was delicious – these students, who smugly stood in defiance against a room of people they no doubt saw as their intellectual inferiors, couldn’t even read a basic graph. Yet they still remained smug and condescending in their demeanor despite this, and soon left the auditorium after the questions had moved beyond them, acting and looking proud of themselves for “stumping” Stossel. But we all knew the truth – just because Stossel didn’t give this pair the only answer they would personally accept (“you’re right, I’m wrong”) didn’t mean that his real answer wasn’t actually sufficient. The data spoke for itself – anyone studying at a prestigious university such as ours should be capable of seeing that. Yet for these two proud liberals, living in a world of their own in which they were seemingly right by default and justified in crashing a more conservative speaking event, bothering to comprehend data an statistics pertaining to market forces and government action proved elusive.
And that’s when it hit me – Stossel schooled these two kids by merely showing a slide that thoroughly debunked their pro-government intervention beliefs. They were even noticeably confused by it. And yet, it didn’t seem to shake their faith in the slightest. For liberals, economic and market literacy truly isn’t something they seem to bother becoming versed in. Until this instance, I honestly thought the dispute between the more socialist thinkers and the capitalists was a result of two equally valid points of view with equal reverence to honest collecting and analyzing of data. But after witnessing what I did, I was finally convinced that it comes purely as a result of willful ignorance – good feelings and good intentions, it seems, truly are given more importance that good results in at least a few modern liberal minds. And that is truly disheartening. Now I admit is anecdotal and therefore not indicative of all the liberal students at my school, but the fact that this pair in particular had the confidence to be such obvious ignoramuses in front of so many people based on ideology alone cannot be brushed aside as nothing. I submit it is indicative of the mindset of so many young people just like those I witnessed this night – and unfortunately, most of them won’t have a John Stossel nearby to show them for what they are when it really counts.