I recently lunched with my friend Greg, an entrepreneur and enthusiastic libertarian. We chatted about our love lives and day jobs first and once warmed up, turned to politics, a touchy subject between us. He opened with proud absolute certainty that freedom solved everything. I asked for evidence, and he provided a careful selection: Democracy beat Communism, Silicon Valley outperforms bureaucracies, it’s more fun to be free than constrained.
I brought up exceptions to his absolute. His employees aren’t free to do just anything, nor were he and his wife. “That’s different,” he said. So I turned back to politics. Every basic government program I named he conceded was necessary. And yet still he insisted that total freedom solved everything.
My voice rising, I said that I agreed with him whole-halfedly. Freedom solves everything except what’s solved by constraint. We’re all trying to tune things through the right combination of loosening and tightening. Then he said something marvelous.
“Yes,” he said, “but those details don’t interests me.”
My voice went gentle, our argument over. I loved him for his honesty, his concession of what’s true for us all.
There’s the thinking our challenges demand and the thinking we’re willing or able to supply. In my research I sometimes dismiss as irrelevant what’s actually only hard for my lazy mind to understand.
Where our supply of careful thought doesn’t meet demand, there’s always a sweeping but empty principle handy to makes us feel we’re supplying the thought demanded. For Greg, it’s that freedom conquers all; for my liberal purist friends, it’s that love conquers all. In practice none of us live by such principles. They’re just ways to sound like we’re giving thought we aren’t. The media’s new breed of political bloviators are master chefs demonstrating how to cook ever grander opinion soufflés, turning meager thinking into something impressively puffy. We imitate the bloviators, practicing for ever bolder campaigning but, alas, not subtler governing.
Reality isn’t impressed by our puffery. It doesn’t accommodate our limited supply of careful thought. The world’s woes won’t cancel themselves for lack of popular interest. The least we can do is, as Greg did over lunch, admit when we’re not really interested in the details.