Monday, January 2, 2012

There's No Easy Way To Be Free

To usher in the New Year, I thought I'd share some some of the ideas that define my point of view, as expressed by a number of famous thinkers of the past. Really, these quotes serve as a sort of template for my approach to most issues, be they political, social, or economic.

First, there are the words of Dante, from his essay De Monarchia, written circa 1310:
Mankind is at its best when it is most free. This will be clear if we grasp the principle of liberty. We must recall that the basic principle is freedom of choice, which saying many have on their lips but few in their minds.
Dante alludes to an essential truth about freedom, that people see their own freedom through a very different lens than they see the freedom due others. And he notes that calls or demands for freedom do not necessarily indicate understanding.

Next, we have this very harsh--but tragically correct--saying that has been attributed to Niccolo Machiavelli:
You do not know the unfathomable cowardice of humanity... servile in the face of force, pitiless in the face of weakness, implacable before blunders, indulgent before crimes... and patient to the point of martyrdom before all the violence of bold despotism.
In general terms, this means people will put up with a lot of shit, especially when their necks are not definitively on the line. We can also see this through the prism of economic theory: man--by and large--is not given to risk, unless there is a direct, commensurate, and forseeable personal benefit for that risk. But either way, the truth is that humanity as a group is rarely moved by a sense of right and wrong, by a sense of justice or morality.

But even as I relate these quotes, it is important to remember these words of Thomas Hobbes, from Leviathan in 1651:
Words are wise men’s counters, they do but reckon by them; but they are the money of fools, that value them by the authority of an Aristotle, a Cicero, or a Thomas, or any other doctor whatsoever, if but a man.
Quotes--the ideas and thoughts of others--are great. But they are neither accurate, meaningful, and/or truthful as a matter of course, simply because the person that wrote or spoke them is famous, has a bunch of degrees, or is in a position of authority. The ideas, themselves, need to examined with a critical eye and--when necessary--tested against empirical evidence, scientific or historical.

In that respect, consider these words, written by Immanuel Kant in the introduction to his Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics in 1783:
I openly confess, the suggestion of David Hume was the very thing, which many years ago first interrupted my dogmatic slumber, and gave my investigations in the field of speculative philosophy quite a new direction.
Hume's "suggestion" centers around the idea of causality, which Hume criticized as being untenable, as usually expressed in the simplistic form of cause and effect. Kant claims to have learned the lesson of empiricism and, indeed, is often credited by some with fusing that concept with rationality. Yet, as Kant progresses with his own theories, he quickly abandons the lesson for their sake, thus creating a wholly unworkable--if interesting--theory of knowledge. As such, we must be ever wary of such claims and ever cognizant of the consistency or lack thereof in the ideas we explore.

In the realm of economic theory, few thinkers carry more weight for me than Freidrich Hayek. Really, his Road to Serfdom is one continuous quotable quote to me. But in the interests of brevity, here is the meat of it:
The more the state "plans" the more difficult planning becomes for the individual.
Not much needs to be said about this statement. Empirical evidence demonstrates the truth of it, conclusively. And it is this assumption that underpins the ideas of those--like me--categorically opposed to the expansion of state power in the economy.

Finally--for this brief interlude--there are the words of Hannah Arendt, as they appeared in an interview in the New Yorker in 1977:
Nietzsche reversed Plato, forgetting that a reversed Plato is still Plato...Marx turned Hegel upside down, producing a very Hegelian system of History in the process.
People want to be original, want to believe they have something new and profound to say. But far more often than not, they are simply rehashing the same ideas and concepts of the past. Nowhere is this made more abundantly clear than in Arendt's comparison, where two of the supposedly most original thinkers of modern times are shown to be shadows of the past. Distorted, perhaps, but shadows nonetheless.

The long and short of al of this is that freedom is something that is not given, it is--and always will be--something that must be worked for, striven for. No magical system will create it, no government program will guarantee it, for power and the accumulation of such leads to abuse as a matter of course. We--all of us--must be on our guard constantly.

Cheers, all.

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