Here there be monsters (socratic) wrote,
Here there be monsters

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More freedom needed

I recently read* Mark Steyn's "America Alone". I did this because I consider myself both a liberal and a rationalist, and I believe that in order to maintain any sort of intellectual honesty it is necessary to pay attention to and engage with the serious arguments** made by people who disagree with you. In college I knew a lot of young liberals who cut themselves off entirely from conservative thought, absolutely refusing to believe that William Buckley or Milton Friedman ever had an idea worth hearing. They were generally immature and dull.

I don't agree with many of the ideas in Steyn's book. He breezes over the suffering and slaughter inherent in imperial campaigns, claiming that British imperialism was good for pretty much everyone. He is overly hostile to Islam, failing to recognize that actual religious doctrine doesn't matter as much as the political context within which it exists. He criticizes American homogeneity without probing its sources.

But he's right about a lot of stuff too.

The biggest thing he's right about is the importance of freedom. Steyn points out that in America unpasteurized fresh cheese is illegal, because it sometimes leads to illness. But unpasteurized fresh cheese is eaten throughout Europe, and it's hardly in the top 10, or even 100, causes of death over there. This is an example of a freedom that simply does not need to be abridged. And yet it is. Why? Does the average American actually think there should be a law against people eating unpasteurized fresh cheese? No. It's a power grab by the government, plain and simple. It's likely that this was the result of some special interest lobbying to "protect" people from their competition. And we let it happen because we can't be bothered to or don't know how to go about getting this stupid law erased.

Steyn points out that too many traffic regulations leads, unexpectedly, to more highway deaths, not less. People start to assume that everything will be okay if they just follow the rules, and stop paying attention and taking responsibility for their own actions. This is generally how things work. If you tell your kid not to cross the highway unattended, or stick his hands into electric sockets, you are doing him a favor. If you keep him indoors in a plastic bubble you are doing him a disservice. People need the freedom to make mistakes and learn from them. Today we coddle and restrict way too much. Kids get arrested for writing violent stories and adults aren't allowed to buy the cheese they want. The net impact of this is devastating to our way of life.

Steyn also makes the point that those of us who want to abolish religion haven't worked out the kinks in terms of how a religion free society exists. He points to Europe and claims that it consists mostly of countries fighting a losing battle against the realities of demographics. This is a legitimate problem. Most European countries are in dire demographic straits and they don't seem to know what to do about it. Even those who worry about population expansion don't think that 1.3 children per woman is a healthy number for a society. A Japanese official was recently attacked in the press for claiming that women are baby making machines and Japanese women aren't making enough babies. He was right. Women aren't JUST baby making machines, but that is something that only they can do, and Japan isn't producing enough children to sustain its society. As for what can be done about that? I don't know. I don't think there's a clear or easy answer.

Steyn's last major important point is that the war in Iraq is being fought in a stupidly restrained and delicate way. I've made this point before myself. If you go into war trying your hardest not to kill the enemy you are going to get your ass kicked. That's pretty much what's happened. If we're going to be in Iraq it does nobody any good for American troops to spend more time giving out chocolate than they do shooting people. The militias are winning because they aren't afraid to project their force. America should make them afraid. Either that or get out. Sitting around in the Green Zone is stupid.

I have a lot of value disagreements with Steyn. We differ in our views of the importance of individual suffering, in our beliefs about justice, in our opinion about the ideal human life. One area where we seem to agree, though, is that reality matters. Theory is useful only insofar as its practice results in, well, results. The right frequently forgets this, as in their weird virginity campaigns that produce more STDs and more teenage pregnancies (Japan could use some of those) and in their disastrous foreign policy debacles where they refuse to admit that things have gone to shit, even when it's obvious that things have gone to shit. The left forgets this too, though. When it promotes asinine restrictions on freedom that can't possibly be justified, when it holds contradictory views simultaneously (The rights of the individual, especially women, must be upheld. It's okay if Muslims want to cut up their daughters' genitals and marry them off to old men, because that's their way.) And when it ignores simple economic realities that have been proved time and time again (Competition yields better results than monopoly, government is inefficient in the extreme.)

I think orthodoxy of any sort is almost always the wrong path. Nobody has things just right yet, and if they ever do get it right you can guarantee it will soon be corrupted. While I'm a liberal on most issues I do think the conservatives do have strong arguments in certain places, and nowhere is their argument stronger than that adults should be given the freedom to make mistakes and do stupid things, or they are not adults at all.

*Okay, listened to on audiobook. You caught me.

**Steyn is a humorist, but contained within is humor is a distillation of much conservative thought.
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