Ruling out Reason

Sunday, March 18, 2007

In today's Houston Chronicle was an editorial by a Hungarian-born American physician who has noted, amid a thicket of nonsensical bureaucratic regulations, a disturbing trend among his countrymen. (An alternate link, which requires registration, is here.) After citing several eye-opening examples, he concludes:

When I first came to the United States more than 30 years ago from then-communist Hungary, I was struck by how Americans were willing to use individual judgment. They seemed to realize that rules were to be interpreted and not just followed with unquestioning servility. It was very different from the super-regimented, state-controlled thinking of my country and I enjoyed it tremendously. It was this attitude that persuaded me to leave the place where I grew up and make the United States my home. It would be a shame to have to accept that the days of the "can do" common-sense Yankee are over.

Of course daily life still requires the exercise of common sense. As a physician, I have to make sensible decisions dozens of times a day. I still have hope that we can reverse this trend and realize, again, that if people are expected to use common sense, they may turn out to have some, and by practice acquire even more.

We may still be able to realize that by holding a steel fork to the carotid artery of a flight attendant, a terrorist could do just as much damage as by holding a knife, and we could do away with this nonsense of plastic knives on airplanes. Or maybe the ladies at the hotel in San Diego were right when they suggested that I should have just gone to the steam room instead of the sauna? [bold added]
His observation is, unfortunately, very good and the remedy he suggests is sound. And the way he delivers it is perfect, for he warns us of how our collective willingness to not think for ourselves will narrow down the options we have in our daily lives if is left unchecked.

His commentary furthermore reminds me of the famous parable of the boiled frog, which I found summarized in this way:
They say that if you put a frog into a pot of boiling water, it will leap out right away to escape the danger.

But, if you put a frog in a kettle that is filled with water that is cool and pleasant, and then you gradually heat the kettle until it starts boiling, the frog will not become aware of the threat until it is too late. The frog's survival instincts are geared towards detecting sudden changes.
In the context of political philosophy, I have typically encountered this parable as a warning against the kind of creeping tyranny made possible by the willingness of too many people to accept the gradual loss of their freedom over time.

In that sense, it is true, but recall that freedom is a necessary condition for man to flourish precisely because it enables men to think and act upon their best judgement without having to fear coercion from others. Thus, when men accept less freedom, they are necessarily in effect accepting restrictions on what they may think about. In other words, this column does not just describe the gradual way that free men can succumb to tyranny, it shows us exactly how it occurs! We are, as a people, slowly doing less and less thinking for ourselves, and becoming worse at it for lack of practice.

Do not mistake the calmness of the author's laying out of evidence, his prognosis, and his suggested course of action for a lack of urgency. Yes. He has told us that we may have caught it in time, but the good Dr. Hardi has still just diagnosed what I wish he had described as "cancer of the body politic".

"A republic, if you can keep it." Slavish devotion to bureaucratic regulations and worrying more about potential lawsuits than one's job are not the way to go. We continue to accept such nonsense at the expense not merely of our freedom, but of our very ability to think at all.

-- CAV


Galileo Blogs said...

Rules reduce our range of thinking, until we can no longer think for ourselves, and then someone takes over who offers to do it for us. The subservience of man to arbitrary rules is his conditioning for dictatorship.

Gus Van Horn said...

Exactly. This is the essence of the added dimension this article brings in to how dangerous tinkering around with government controls really is.

It isn't JUST that we get used to the controls. it's that the controls take their toll on us in other ways.

Jim May said...

Gus: when I read this:

"They seemed to realize that rules were to be interpreted and not just followed with unquestioning servility. "

...the first thing I thought of
were those who analyze the U.S. Constitution's words to death while having no grasp of the principles expressed therein.

Gus Van Horn said...

And when we get enough people like that in the judiciary, that document will offer our freedom little protection, no matter how brilliant its authors....