TCS Daily


Why Not?

By Kenneth Silber - June 27, 2003 12:00 AM

"Some men see things as they are and say 'Why?' I dream of things that never were and say 'Why not?'"
- Robert F. Kennedy


This oft-quoted statement by Robert Kennedy evokes some of the best qualities of 1960s liberalism: the idealism of believing that a better world is possible, and an emphasis on fresh and imaginative thinking.

Liberals today should ask themselves how well Kennedy's words represent their current attitudes. But lest it seem that I'm engaged in liberal-baiting, I note that conservatives, libertarians and most anybody else could benefit from some thinking about "Why not?"

There is, for that matter, an interesting ambiguity to the question. "Why not?" might suggest an anything-is-possible spirit, but it can also be taken more literally. "Why not?" can mean "Are there reasons why we shouldn't do this?" or "Why didn't this happen?"

Historians have shown a growing interest in counterfactual "What if" scenarios, and of course fiction writers have long explored such themes in everything from comic books to science fiction to movies such as "It's a Wonderful Life," where Jimmy Stewart's character is shown what life in his small town would have been like had he never existed.

Now, bearing in mind various recent news subjects, I will sketch out several scenarios of things that were not, or are not, or perhaps never will be -- so we may ask "Why not?"

Bill Clinton Loses Reelection Bid. The year is 1996. Despite limited enthusiasm for Republican challenger Bob Dole, President Clinton is swept from office amid surging popular discontent over the state of the economy. The return of late 1970s-style "stagflation," combining stagnant growth with high inflation, is widely attributed to three Clinton initiatives passed by Congress early in Clinton's term: an energy tax aimed at reducing fossil-fuel consumption; a "stimulus package" of government spending; and the restructuring of health care under a plan devised by First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton.

In a book published later by Mrs. Clinton, the president is depicted awakening her with the news that doctors have declared a general strike rather than operate under price controls mandated by her plan. Gulping for air, she yells at him "What do you mean?"

Why not? The abovementioned Clinton economic proposals were blocked by Congress, due to opposition among the Democratic majority as well as the Republican minority.

New Wave of Mars Exploration. The year is 2003. Spacecraft from the United States, Europe and Japan are converging on Mars. The arrivals will bring the first humans to the red planet, following years of extensive robotic exploration. Bases, rovers and fuel-synthesis devices are already in place after a series of automated missions. Nuclear-propulsion technology, developed in the U.S. since the 1960s, has reduced travel time to Mars to a period of weeks, enabling astronauts to avoid health problems resulting from prolonged weightlessness and radiation exposure while in transit.

The presence of scientists on Mars is expected to resolve lingering questions about possible past or present life on the fourth planet within the next several years.

Why not? A general lack of political will, public attention and economic incentives. Nuclear propulsion research was largely abandoned after the 1960s, as too expensive and politically sensitive. NASA's recent revival of such work is a promising sign, however.

Iran Emerges as Theocratic World Power. The year is 2008. The Islamic Republic of Iran, having tested its first nuclear weapon several years earlier, now possesses an arsenal of several dozen warheads. Iranian missiles are capable of delivering the warheads throughout the Middle East and into parts of Europe, and there are concerns that Iran might rely on its extensive terrorist connections to smuggle nuclear weapons beyond the region as a form of blackmail. Iran's nukes have vastly enhanced its international influence and bolstered its dominant role in post-occupation Iraq.

Why not? Well, this could happen. If it is prevented, it will probably be by some combination of popular discontent in Iran and pressure from the U.S. and other nations. And it will have a lot to do with international television broadcasts received by Iranians using illegal or even makeshift satellite dishes. The transmissions sent to those dishes now are signals of a possibly better future.

The question "Why not?" takes us into worlds that we can work toward, and worlds that we must work to avoid. You may now return, for better and worse, to reality.
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