The Case for Optimism

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One positive feature of the post-September 11th mess has been the discovery of who is, and who is not, devoted to individual liberty. It's all so easy to espouse liberty principles when there are no apparent costs associated with doing so. It becomes much tougher when the costs begin to escalate.

I am reminded of an exercise I have used on the first day of my classes. I hand out a list of philosophic statements and ask students to express their agreement or disagreement with various propositions. They do this anonymously. Among the statements are those which state: "the interests of the group should take priority over individual interests," and "people should put aside their personal interests when the well-being of others is at stake."

I usually get anywhere from 40-60% of the students to state agreement with these notions. I then tell them that we will have a dual grading system for the course: individual and group-based. For those who select the individual method, their grades will be determined on the basis of their performance on the exam. For those who select the group basis, all grades will be pooled (for the group) and each student will get the average grade for that group. In the instances where I have used this exercise, I have never had a "group": I will sometimes get one student to sign up for it, but never two or more.

They may be willing to espouse collectivist sentiments, but don't want their grades determined that way. I tell them that it's a lot like the beauty contestants who are asked: "if you had but one wish, what would it be?" They all respond with variations of: "peace and brotherhood for all mankind." I use this as an introduction to some "law and economics" ideas. "Why do they answer this way?", I ask. After some efforts on the part of the students to answer this question, I tell them: "it's because they know they don't really have a wish!"

Doesn't the separation between what one is willing to espouse and to live by also help to explain the current American experiences with terrorism? As long as American bombs were falling in other parts of the world, and no pain was being inflicted at home, most Americans were content to ignore the human costs of such activities. But now Americans are facing the harsh realities that my students had to encounter in the prospects for their grades: ideas have consequences (to borrow from Richard Weaver).

So, too, it seems with so many of the Randians, the FreeRepublic, the Cato people, and the Libertarian Party: in a time of crisis, they all seem more intent on looking "respectable" to the very people and ideas that their stated philosophy would seem to reject! To such people, there is now a greater "cost" to leaving the security of the herd than there is a "benefit" to living as a free, self-controlling individual.

While I have not been a supporter of these above groups in the past, my willingness to support any groups in the future will be determined by how they respond when the threats to our liberties are not just implicit in the state, but explicit in the expanded police state measures now being implemented in our lives.

In the aftermath of the WTC attack, as well as the government's attack on our liberties, I have had occasion to learn a great deal about people I have regarded as my friends, . . . most of it quite favorable, some not so favorable. As I told one of my colleagues who could not understand my unwillingness to join in the war fervor, I do not take kindly to people whose sense of patriotism consists in helping to create an environment that threatens the lives of my family!

I suspect that, in the ensuing months, I shall find myself more withdrawn from some of my erstwhile friends, and more embracing of newly-discovered friends. (This, by the way, is why I have just sent you another contribution, in response to the request I received the other day from your Burlingame, CA facility.)

I nonetheless remain optimistic for the future – even in the short-term! After seeing thousands of angry and fearful people driving around with their American flags flapping from their cars – whether from a sense of jingoistic sentiment or a lack of understanding as to any better course of action – I have noticed a few "Lakers" flags, and one Mexican flag, added to the show. I even saw one bumper sticker that read: "why do we go around killing people who kill people in order to show to the world that it is wrong to kill people?" Perhaps all of this is a way of people beginning to say "enough!"

My favorite anecdote, however, came from one of my students, who told me that she and her husband had been to some public event a week or so ago, prior to which the "national anthem" was played. She and her husband remained seated – as, she told me, they did even before September 11th. A man sitting behind them whapped her husband on the shoulder and asked: "why aren't you standing for the national anthem?", to which he replied: "well, you really can't dance to it, can you?"

As more people come to the realization that they can't "dance" to this music, perhaps they will also be disinclined to "march" to it!

Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] teaches law.

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