Recently I watched an interview of Glenn Loury, a black professor of economics from Brown University, done by Peter Robinson of the Hoover Institution. In it, he makes a remarkable statement quoting his friend Shelby Steele, himself a black English professor who now writes books commenting on current affairs.
Loury quotes Steele to the effect that “the problem before [blacks in America] now is not a problem of oppression. It is a problem of freedom. It is a problem of seizing opportunity, the problem of taking responsibility.”
It echoed within me as I have been thinking similar thoughts about the problem of freedom, but not of blacks as a singled-out category. Rather, the problem of freedom is one that affects us all.
It has been many years since I read John Fowles’s novel Daniel Martin. But I clearly recall that in it the protagonist, an English professor of philosophy, exchanges views with an Eastern European. The subject was “freedom.”
The East European suggested that for those in the West, freedom means freedom from constraint, while in the East it means freedom from chaos. Thus, those in the East are far more willing to accede to an authority or an institution for guidance, while Westerners tend toward ignoring civic signposts and simply go their own way as the mood strikes them, despite the cultural chaos that can result.
This ties in with a distinction Thomas Sowell makes when he writes about social policy.
On the one hand, he writes, there are the “anointed,” who believe themselves superior morally to the average general citizen. They develop social plans and policies that are unconstrained by the reality of previous rules and regulations of civic institutions like the Church, or Government, or even the Law, in order to advocate for what they envision as a perfect world of Justice and Equity.
Opposed to their vision are those who are constrained in what they believe is socially and politically possible by long-term rules of accepted behavior and by reality itself.
The constrained are the ones who understand that reality insists that any policy or regulation change will have consequences – often unintended and unwanted consequences. Thus, perfection is never possible, and every change is a tradeoff.
The unconstrained can see racial justice in eliminating bail and letting prisoners out of prison. The unseen tradeoff is a spike in crime as the incentive for avoiding criminality is removed.
The unconstrained can see equity being served by instituting the teachings of Critical Race Theory in our schools. The unseen tradeoff is the racialized bigotry aimed at unsuspecting child white “oppressors” that alarms parents and leave nothing but anger and social bitterness in its wake.
The unconstrained insist on the value of diversity in gender, race, sexual orientation, age, disabilities, etc. They do so without accounting for the ensuing result that mediocre people are then advanced in their careers over those who exhibit superior abilities but do not check the correct boxes of the diversity agenda. And we all suffer for the preferred advancement of mediocrity.
The unconstrained believe a just society does not keep people out through borders and expulsions of non-citizens. The tradeoff is the onslaught of untold millions of immigrants who have entered the United States illegally, the general ignoring of our immigration laws, and the commensurate hike in crime. Then, too, there is the drain on the public coffers to take care of all these people.
The unconstrained at schools insist that those students who are “underserved,” as they like to say, are given preference over other applicants who clearly are superior academically. The tradeoff is the more rigorous schools lose quality students while admitting students who, statistics show, often fail because they cannot meet the academic rigors of the institution.
Had these affirmative action admittees gone to lesser schools, they more likely would have done well and launched themselves into successful careers. Instead, they are failures. In education circles, it is called a “mismatch.”
We all have freedom to choose our actions, but more and more the free choices being made, as Shelby Steele and Glenn Loury point out, are bad ones that lead to disastrous consequences.
What is lacking among the unconstrained who see their freedom as carte blanche to do whatever the hell they want, simply put, is wisdom, which is a synthesis of intelligence and experience and a humility seeking greater understanding.
As in all situations where the unconstrained impose their views on others, it is good to ponder the sensible and historically astute views of Edmund Burke.
Burke was a prolific writer who wrote a trenchant analysis of the French Revolution contemporaneous with the event itself. Titled Reflections of the Revolution in France, he contrasts the approach of the revolutionaries with a more traditional, conservative understanding of history.
Written a bare 18 months after the July 1789 fall of the Bastille, Burke presciently envisions the violence that would soon occur in Paris as the most radical of the revolutionaries, the Jacobins, sought to impose their own ideological passions on the people.
The Jacobins rejected the civic and moral institutions that heretofore had guided life within France. So, setting aside the Church and the political machinery of the Monarchy, they instead depended on the unimpeded – one could say unconstrained – abstractions of their own Reason.
But Reason, unanchored to any constraining guide, is capable of justifying most anything, including murder, as would later be demonstrated in the years of The Terror and the reign of the guillotine in France.
Burke argued the levers of civic responsibility and stability lay with the long-term traditions and institutions that have proven over time their efficacy and worth. One destroys these pillars of society at one’s peril.
Burke wrote: “Freedom without virtue is not freedom but license to pursue whatever passions prevail in the intemperate mind; man’s right to freedom being in exact proportion to his willingness to put chains upon his own appetites.”
But what is the source of such “virtue”?
Consider this: In Plato’s The Republic, in the second chapter, Plato’s older brother, Glaucon, argues that a “Just man” is only faking it to gain the social approval of the crowd. He then tells the story of the Ring of Gyges, which allows its wearer to become invisible. What “Just” person would not take advantage of the ring to do all sorts of unjust things once he realizes he can get away with it without punishment?
The implied conclusion is that there is no Just person. There are only people who behave morally because they are afraid of the consequences if they are caught while behaving badly.
You see this being played out on our streets today as “smash-and-grabbers” and those openly using drugs or defecating on sidewalks or attacking, robbing and breaking into stores, homes and automobiles have a sort of “ring of Gyges” in that, in urban areas run by unconstrained Progressives, they are no longer prosecuted. Their freedom to do as they please, unconstrained, is destroying civil society.
A different take comes from Aristotle in his Nicomachean Ethics. He argues that virtue deals with one’s moral state while justice has to do with one’s relations with others. Laws are developed for people to do justice to one another. And the Just man follows the law as an act of civic and personal virtue.
What we have today in the unconstrained vision of America being imposed by our modern-day Jacobins is a disregard for traditional civic institutions and the law, which ultimately creates injustice and justifies the lack of virtue among those “wilding” in the streets in group “smash-and-grabs” and individual attacks on other citizens.
These unlawful acts go unpunished by a new breed of “anointed” prosecutors and unremarked upon by a media in cahoots with the preferred narrative of Progressive Justice. Their motto, from French revolutionary Jacobin leader Maximilien Robespierre himself, “You can’t make an omelette (i.e. a Just society) without breaking a few eggs.”
Or, to put it in the words of Milwaukee progressive prosecutor John Chisholm, who allowed the driver who slaughtered six innocents and maimed many more with his SUV during a Christmas Parade out on minimal bail, despite his having many outstanding charges against him: “Is there going to be an individual I divert, or I put into treatment program, who’s going to go out and kill somebody? You bet.
Guaranteed. It’s guaranteed to happen. It does not invalidate the overall approach.”
In his unconstrained lack of wisdom of how the world actually is, Chisholm sees the loss of life as simply the price of doing the business of bringing about a perfect world of Justice and Equity.
As civic laws and commensurate virtue are more and more ignored, society unravels and is more unanchored.
If this trend is ultimately to be reversed, what is needed is a renewed understanding of virtue and of the civic responsibility of each citizen to maintain a society’s institutions of law and justice as well as the institutions that teach and reinforce the moral guidance needed to maintain a just and fair society.
This requires a certain kind of classic education generally no longer available.
American citizens have had enough of the abstract theories of the “anointed” and their unconstrained pipedreams of what they think a Just society is and ought to be.
We’ve had enough of their fanciful theories of how society should be drastically changed, re-ordered and imposed from the top down.
What is needed today is an appreciation for common sense, for our common history, and a recognition of the tried-and-true experiences of citizens that have been reified in institutions that have, for centuries, done well by us.
We all have an unprecedented amount of freedom to do whatever we damn well please. But the choices of the “anointed” have been disastrous because their lack of common sense and crippled historical vision leaves them divorced from reality and bereft of wisdom.
Allow American pragmatism to do its work to identify and protect civic institutions that have been shown to have worked and produced beneficial social results over time. You know, policies like appropriate incarceration and bail systems for felony crimes.
It would be a great improvement over the top-down theories of Social Justice that result in the ongoing shredding of our social norms.
That pragmatism, together with the wisdom to know good policy and the blessings of civic virtue, allows an enlightened person to use his freedom to make good choices rather than bad ones, choices that trend toward an enhanced and fulfilling life.
It’s kind of like the verse from Deuteronomy 30:19 that says, “I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live.”
That is the more profitable and philosophically sound route toward justice, social stability, and virtuous citizens.
By Ron Nutter
Ron Nutter is a regular contributor to The Blue State Conservative, and retired college professor of Philosophy and Religion living in a cabin on a mountain in Western North Carolina with his retired physician wife, and he still reads voraciously.
Featured photo by Geralt at Pixabay