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Seeking to understand

April 29, 2018

People have an unfortunate tendency, when dealing with other people who disagree with us about something significant (or something minor sometimes), to do more than disagree with their point(s) of view. Instead, we disparage not the ideas but the person. I know because I am not all that special and I tend to do it myself. This tendency is Not Good, for at least two reasons. First and most importantly, it belittles the person. In fact, it seeks to make the other one less than a person, which arguably takes the tendency from simply Not Good to Really Not Good or even Really Bad. I would argue this tendency should not be a surprise from those on the Left, given the Left’s tendency toward various forms of collectivism and identity politics. It is hard to be a collectivist, I submit, while extolling the value of the individual over the value of the group. For those of us of libertarian or conservative tendencies, when we exhibit this tendency it is a bit of an hypocrisy given our conscious and deliberate extolling of the value of the individual. Second, it is at least Not Good because it interferes with out ability to understand those with whom we disagree. “You’re just an authoritarian s***head” may make us feel better, but all we’ve really done is call someone a name. We haven’t accomplished anything.

While I’ve been thinking about this sort of thing for several years now and trying to understand those with whom I disagree (rather than giving in to my tendency to engage in a sort of take-no-prisoners-kill-them-all-torch-the-buildings-salt-the-earth-and-mount-the-enemy-heads-on-poles response), I recently read some things that have helped me understand I think a little of the difference between individualists and collectivists. The first is a post on Sarah Hoyt’s blog. It looks at collectivist ideology as being profoundly “Un-American.” It is probably best summarized by this quote from the last paragraph:

“…worst of all they try to tell us that rather than remaining true to being a country founded upon Freedom From Government, we should become a country that espouses ‘Freedom’ Through Government.”

“Okay,” you might respond. “How does that contribute to understanding? After all, that isn’t as much of a ‘why’ as it is a ‘what,’ isn’t it?” Absolutely. But there is more.

I like to read the comments that so often follow blog posts. In this case, one of those comments contained this link. The article looks at two towns, the Canadian town of Stewart, British Columbia and the American town of Hyder, Alaska. The towns are about two miles apart. The authors, along with dealing briefly (the article is only seven pages, with pictures) with the American definition of virtue (including the important concepts of thumos and both the American view of “frontier” and the cowboy archetype), make this observation:

“There are quite a few American characteristics that seem unpleasant to people with different definitions of virtue. People who have a strong taste for order and hierarchy, who enjoy calm and quiet and leisure, who prefer security to risk, who take aesthetic pleasure in simplicity rather than in the bustling variety of human
commerce—such people are not likely to enjoy America much.”

It is here, I think, that I have found a clue.

I have spoken with a lot of people over the years who talked of how much they disliked working for others and how much they longed to start their own businesses. Most of them never do the thing for which they long. Why is that? Simply put, like many investors, I believe they are risk averse.

To me, this explains a lot. It is not simply that collectivists hate freedom and liberty. I do not believe they see themselves as wishing to be slaves or even serfs, and in the common, popular sense in which those terms are used, I agree. No one in his right mind wants that. Rather, they recognize, perhaps subconsciously, a fact about freedom and liberty that is important. As freedom and personal liberty increase, so to does risk. Earlier in the article, the authors briefly quote two sociologists, one Canadian and the other American.

“Canadian sociologist Kaspar Naegele compares his country and the U.S. this way: “In Canada there seems to be greater acceptance of limitation, of hierarchical patterns. There seems to be less optimism, less faith in the future, less willingness to risk capital or reputation.” American sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset concludes that Canada is a “more law-abiding, statist, and collectivity-oriented society” than the United States.”

I believe we should be honest about freedom and liberty. In addition to the psychological risks associated with freedom and liberty (responsibility and accountability make people uncomfortable), there are other more tangible risks. The freer you are from the control of others (whether individuals or government) and the more liberty you have to do as you will, the greater the risks (physical, social, financial etc) you will incur. For most people, every move outside our “comfort zone” is subject to some sort of risk assessment. We accept the risk and do the thing (whatever it is) when we perceive the value of the thing, or the value to be potentially derived from it, to be greater than the risk involved. I am becoming increasingly convinced that for the collectivist, or at least many of them, the risks of freedom and liberty simply are not worth what they might bring. Certainly many do not view them as having an intrinsic value greater than the risk that accompanies them.

Perhaps this is an American view of freedom. Certainly, it seems to date back at least as far as Sam Adams.

“If ye love wealth better than liberty, the tranquility of servitude better than the animating contest of freedom, go home from us in peace. We ask not your counsels or arms. Crouch down and lick the hands which feed you. May your chains set lightly upon you, and may posterity forget that ye were our countrymen.”

I am curious as to what others think. Please share your thoughts.


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