No Free Rides

The plaintive cry, heard across the land, from sea to shining sea, or at least from the living room sofa to the Ottoman, is: Why don’t they understand? How can they not see?

How can your neighbor vote for such a sleazeball? How can your boss sport a bumper sticker on his Prius to support someone so blatantly incompetent? Why do most of the voters in your state continue to support a spoiled, rich, middle-aged kid who is a habitual liar, a cheat (on more than just his wife), and such an all-around nasty piece of work. How can this be?

Don’t they love their children? Don’t they care about their future and their heritage? 

You know them! You’ve lived among these voters your whole life. They are not malevolent people. They are sincerely trying to do the right thing. Having dealt with them for what feels like a very long time—having talked to them, listened to them, reasoned with them, and verbally fought them (OK, so a couple of times physically, but we hold no grudges), we know they are not “bad people.” That is, they are not intentionally evil. But they are, in fact, dangerously wrong. 

The answer is simple enough. Maybe restating the question a little differently here would help. “What were they thinking?” And you know, they do think about it. A lot. Among themselves (and occasionally to your face), they are asking the very same questions:

“Why don’t you understand?” 

“How could you not see?” 

A basic application of the Socratic method will not answer it. You don’t have to be a philosophy major. It’s not that contradictions don’t quickly become apparent, but that they are simply denied. Take just one example: “Printing more money does not create more inflation. Higher prices do.” This doesn’t even require advanced math skills. Were it any other matter in your life, you would answer it without a second thought and move on. But for reasons that stump college professors, housewives, and bridge engineers, the answer somehow eludes them. 

Thomas Sowell wrote an excellent book about it called A Conflict of Visions. It’s not a very long book and is quite accessible without any sort of advanced degree. In it, as his subtitle would indicate, he concentrates on the “Ideological Origins of Political Struggles.” That sounds intimidating if you have diapers to change, groceries to get, or other important work to do. But it’s not. Even if you are math-phobic, when he gets to the semi-algebraic comparisons using “A” and “B,” you can just redesignate “Albert” for “A” and “Bob” for “B.” Works fine. Unless you know someone named “Bob,” who you can’t stand. Then, change it to “Betty.” 

Now, I am not about to reiterate Sowell. I am just attempting to answer a simple question that many people fail to grasp. Besides, I have found before that when I try to restate something Sowell has said—not having spent all those years thinking about the best way to say it, nor possessing his intelligence, I do not make things better. But I will make the point that he explains much of the background to the question (not just regarding inflation but also general governmental incompetence) so well that the reason so many people fail to grasp the solution is clear, even to me.

I suspect that most of the nonreligious conflicts of humankind may come down to this. Importantly, I don’t think a problem is solved simply by stating it aloud. This is not a solution. This is an explication. An illumination. An answer that keeps you from breaking your TV or busting your knuckles on a hard head. Understanding the ““why”” of something makes dealing with it easier. The frustration becomes a matter of dealing with it, like bad weather. You don’t control it. You didn’t cause it. But there it is for you to accept. 

Now, Sowell’s exposition involves dividing the human vision of itself into two conflicting parts: the ““constrained”” and the ““unconstrained.”” When I first read this, some 30 years ago, it was a revelation to me. It explained everything! Most especially, it revealed a key misunderstanding among my own tribe of libertarians. (A dense lot, I admit). Most of my own kind would have immediately identified with the unconstrained. 

And simply put, that was the reason why so many libertarians were so stupid.

What Is a Libertarian, Anyway?

Words have meanings. We can twist them and combine them and abuse them, but the facts remain. Calling a “murder” a “killing” does not change who is dead nor who did it. But saying you are a “libertarian” is not so definitive. It simply indicates that you might believe in a maximum amount of individual freedom. “Maximum” by what standard? “Freedom,” according to what definition? 

Sowell quickly and brilliantly illuminates, comparing and contrasting Adam Smith’s understanding in The Theory of Moral Sentiments with William Godwin’s Enquiry Concerning Political Justice. If you can squeeze out the time, you should read them both. But Sowell does the heavy lifting in just a few chapters—actually, in just a few sentences: 

The moral limitations of man in general, and his egocentricity in particular, were neither lamented by Smith nor regarded as things to be changed. They were treated as inherent facts of life, the basic constraint in his vision. The fundamental moral and social challenge was to make the best of the possibilities which existed within that constraint, rather than dissipate energies in an attempt to change human nature.

There it is! This also explains why so many religious leaders are easily persuaded by “progressive” dogma. Religions are often dedicated to changing human nature rather than constraining it. But discussing religious orthodoxy is a rabbit hole that I will side-step for the moment. Suffice it to say, there is a significant conflict in those religious visions that pursue an altering of human character rather than a constraining of it; that is not only among themselves as they try to determine what sort of human beings we should be, and dictate that behavior, but with those other religions more copacetic with the reality.

Constraining is not “stopping” but may be seen as directing or controlling. Any parent can be witness to this process. You don’t want a child who requires constant management, nor one who does not act except because of bullying. But you do want a child and not a biological robot. One day, you will die. You want children who can take care of themselves and take care of others when the time comes. And you want them to be happy. You don’t want an interchangeable human unit but an individual—particular, specific, and remarkable. 

Rabbits are fungible. Raising rabbits is boring.

What Is Freedom?

The unconstrained vision is the matter. Many libertarians, for instance, equate “unconstrained” with being free. And in a brief and primitive way, it is. The wild child is certainly free—until it dies of starvation or is eaten by the lion. Learning to survive is a matter of learning constraints. This is an easy concept for most adults. It may not sit well with some adolescents and some libertarians, but there it is. 

As Sowell points out, the appeal of the unconstrained vision is often tied to intentions—especially “good” intentions. Where the constrained view looks to the unintentional social benefits that may be derived from human nature, “unintentional social benefits were treated by Godwin as scarcely worthy of notice.” To Godwin, “virtue” was the road to human happiness, by which “man was capable of directly feeling other people’s needs as more important than his own” (i.e., “I feel your pain”). You might even feel more virtuous simply by saying it. But we are talking about human beings here. Virtue itself quickly becomes a form of currency. And then some might feel more virtuous than others. 

It is those who usually practice this sort of virtue signaling to establish their status who are most aware of its power and consequence. They themselves may not have any philosophical basis in thought, or any greater motive in mind, but they are aware of what they do. They are often natural bullies. In past times they would have been constrained by social norms, politeness, or a polite respect for the opinion of others. But “live and let live” or “do your own thing” are of a bygone era. Now, in a society riven by restrictions most often irrational and set for the benefit of government and not the citizen, they are unconstrained by consequences.

The same answer comes up again and again. Human beings are “imperfect.” Does that really explain the madness of doing the same thing over and over again and always expecting a different result? Why would a rational person (assuming one knows any) want to give more power to a government which is already bloated, incompetent, and dangerous? Why do people trust a politician who has become rich from the spoils of office? Why do voters ignore the promises made yesterday for the promises of today? (Was J. Wellington Wimpy so far ahead of his time?)

Allowing for our imperfections, and knowing that government is made up of people not much different than yourself biologically, doesn’t it make sense to impose constraints on the behavior of government and citizens alike? And seeing throughout history that those societies with the greatest amount of individual liberty have largely flourished, shouldn’t those restraints on individuals be as minimal as necessary to manage the normal human faults (ignorance, greed, laziness, and the lot)? Isn’t that all that our lost Constitution was about?

Of course, an important ingredient is stability. What most normal human beings crave, after food, safety, and sex, is stability. But correcting for the imperfections of government as well as ourselves must be accomplished without destroying society as a whole. For example, drug laws may be harmful, but legalizing drugs in a welfare state, and thus paying for addiction, is insane. Immigration is an important issue to be dealt with, but open borders are destructive to a welfare state that then becomes a magnet in a larger world of poverty with no idea of restraints. And the welfare state itself is a labyrinthian and self-perpetuating monster with no conscience for constitutional formalities. 

Any nation must present the stability inherent in being able to defend itself. The best military is crucial to survival among other powers looking to take advantage rather than establish a prosperous stability in their own domain. But a military can be dangerous to its own nation when, like a bureaucracy, it sees its own interests apart from the whole. Add to this the element of secrecy and espionage and all is too easily lost.

“Big Business” has been a danger since the early days of America and the Supreme Court of John Marshall. And it is not just the powers behind corporations that pose a danger, it is the citizen who is prosperously employed there and votes to preserve his position rather than what is right or true. In a world of Big Tech all this becomes rather impossible given the international nature of such corporations with no allegiance to a particular nation or culture. Add again the ingredient of espionage and the mix is intolerable.

But now, impose a hierarchy of power totally apart from the citizen. Consider drug companies that can use their powers of life and death to manage nations. Such a dystopian vision haunted Philip K. Dick 50 years ago. You might then picture doctors and medical workers, supposedly dedicated to preserving life, imposing vaccines on populations without proper testing or regard to consequences. 

But why, you might ask?

And there we are again. It is not a difficult equation. We are imperfect. We buy lottery tickets with a one-in-a-million chance of winning instead of a present for someone we love that will be guaranteed success. We vote for the politician who promises us the most. We ignore our own faults to attack others. Why don’t we see the consequences? 

The answer is that we do. And that is the most disturbing answer of all. And that is why we must try to preserve the reasonable restraints we have and reinvigorate the Republic that made our lives possible. We have failed ourselves. We must correct and repair. That’s what elections are for. Accepting our responsibility for what we have done. Yelling at the TV makes no difference at all.

Following Sowell’s wisdom, our moral limitations and our egocentricity, in particular, cannot be changed. They are inherent facts of life. What is needed again are the rational constraints of a constitutional republic. That is what we have lost and must regain. We must vote and see that our votes count. And then we must vote again. We must overcome our own faults to correct the faults of others. There is no free ride, much less a free lunch. Our freedom, and that of our children, depends upon it.

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About Vincent McCaffrey

Vincent McCaffrey is a novelist and bookseller. Visit his website at www.vincentmccaffrey.com.

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