Little Puffs of Smoke

by Don Boudreaux on August 31, 2004

in Regulation

My computer is hospitalized now, being cured of a serious virus. I hope to have it back soon – along with, I’m sure, a justified admonition by George Mason University’s computer-support staff that I should more diligently scan for viruses.

Isn’t the number of computer viruses astonishingly large? In its own macabre way, it impresses me. Lots of people sit around and think these things up and then launch them.

One reason so very many mischievous people use computer viruses as their means of expressing their urge to interfere annoyingly in the lives of others is that computer viruses are anonymous. Probably because of the way that natural selection engineered us, most of us find it to be much easier to irritate and harm faceless, abstract people than to do the same to people whom we must look in the eye, knowing that they know that we are responsible for their misfortune.

Thinking about computer viruses reminded me of two gentlemen I knew years ago. Both fought for the U.S. in World War II., and each is among the most gentle and civilized men I’ve ever known. The one difference between Bill and Joe (the names are fictional) is that Bill was always rushing off to attend this or that reunion of his WWII bomber crew; he loved reliving his wartime exploits. Joe almost never mentioned his experience in the war.

Ten years ago I wrote this column about these two friends. The core of my column is in this paragraph:

I once asked Bill why he attended so many reunions with his former crew members and why he never tired of recollecting his war years. And why does Joe say absolutely nothing about his time in the army? Bill’s response is revealing. “Joe fought in combat, face to face with the enemy. He saw lots of blood and guts and death and suffering. But for me, the war was great. Nothing bad happened to me. My buddies and I flew lots of missions over Japan and nearby islands. All I ever saw were little puffs of smoke on the ground where our bombs hit.

Sitting in your home or office and launching computer viruses is much like being a bomber flying high above your victims. You know they exist, but you never see them. To you, the virus-master, these victims are abstractions. It’s easy to inflict harm on abstractions – not only materially easy (they’re not going to punch you in the nose), but also psychologically easy (because you don’t have to face the eyes, the words, and the body-language of your victims, you avoid suffering the potent immediate feedback of expressed human displeasure at your misbehavior). In short, you don’t really care what faceless, nameless, abstracted strangers think of you. They don’t even know you.

Except for the prankishness, politicians and government bureaucrats are much like computer-virus-masters – or bomber crews: most of the effects of their policies, good or bad, are experienced by faceless, nameless, abstracted strangers. It’s much easier to harm such strangers. I suspect, for example, that President Bush knows that he harmed lots of people with his steel tariffs and with his continuation of grotesquely large farm subsidies. But he doesn’t see these victims face to face; they’re abstractions – little puffs of smoke.

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