The tyranny of liberty

Liberty BellLast night, I watched one of Glenn Beck’s shows, and it surprised me: it actually had bits of thought in it, instead of the distilled lib’ral hating I was expecting. Sure, Beck is unnervingly arrogant and assumes everyone disagreeing with him is an idiot, but, maybe under the influence of his guest Penn Jillette, he followed a coherent train of thoughts and actually was interesting. I’m disagreeing vehemently with most of what both said in the show, but I also understood something.

It seems to be a trivial observation that Libertarians would care first and foremost about liberty, but for some reason it had escaped me that it is in fact the only value that they recognize. They seem to be oblivious to any virtue that doesn’t have a simple mapping on an axis of freedom that spans from anarchy to totalitarianism, that Beck shows on his trademark blackboard at the beginning of the show. This axis, of course, exists, and the multi-dimensional complexity of reality does project on it. That’s what makes the whole worldview consistent and appealing.

Its problem is not that it’s wrong. Its problem is that it’s incomplete and simplistic. That also is, however, its greatest strength.

Penn Jillette illustrates that very well when he enumerates a bunch of complex issues and gives each a seemingly simple resolution by expressing them in exclusive terms of individual freedom, excluding any considerations of fairness, justice, or the greater good.

At 28:50, he stands with the pharmacist who would refuse to fill a doctor’s prescription that he morally objects to, and with the Catholic hospital that refuses to perform a life-saving procedure that goes against Church dogma. He also stands behind the Boy Scouts of America against gays and defends private discrimination at large. He’s “totally OK with that”.

He thus ignores the duty of the pharmacist and the hospital to his patient’s health (which is the defining virtue of the health sector), and he ignores the right of all human beings to be treated fairly, not just by the government, but by anybody who holds any kind of power, such as an employer or the holder of a monopoly.

Simplistic ideologies are dangerous because they are so seductive. They offer simple explanations to a complex world. They make everything look clear-cut and leave no place for ambiguity. By doing so, they don’t just ignore most of reality, they also exclude it from consideration, creating moral issues bigger than the few they superficially solve.

Refuse simplistic worldviews. Instead, broaden your horizons, embrace complexity and ambiguity. Consider all points of view, in every issue, before you judge. Not because they are all true, but because they all contribute to weaving the tapestry of humanity.

Tags: Naive philosophy, Politics, TV

Jan 5 2013 1:19 PM