NOTE: I am finally reproducing my "Stupid Quote of the Day" series that ran in my previous blog, the now defunct "Random Notes", from December 28, 2011 to January 27, 2012. Please note that there are no entries for January 4 and January 12 through January 14 due to illness.
As the title suggests, this is my attempt to make up for the three days of posts I lost to the gremlins which disabled my internet access last weekend. I know I already posted on quote in an attempt to make up for their loss, but I am ignoring that and will try, over the next day or two, to post the three missing quotes. I already have two quotes to use for the January 21st quote, and as you are reading this, I obviously have the quote for the 20th, so I now only need the 22nd to complete the missing posts. (I don't intend right now to make up earlier missing posts from my illness on the 12th, 13th and 14th, or the other missing quote from the 4th, but who knows, I may do so yet.
Before I begin, let me offer a short disclaimer. I have always been a fan of Thomas Jefferson. In my youth probably a bit more so than now, but even now I find him quite an interesting writer and a fairly consistent theorist of free government, as well as a mostly consistent proponent of distributed government (which we now call "federalism", though in his day "federalists" argued for precisely the opposite position). As I read more of later thinkers, I believe I lost a little of my awe of Jefferson, as I realized that he had come to overshadow Madison, who was probably a bit more consistent than Jefferson in many respects, and lost a little more as I realized how his successor Jackson was not only ignored, but slandered as some sort of ignorant rube. Realizing the stature of those who came after, Jefferson stood a little less tall in my mind than in the minds of others, but I still have great respect for him.
Having said that, Jefferson was also a human being, and as such was given to errors, both transient slips of the tongue or errors of thought, as well as persistent mistakes based upon incorrect assumptions. Many tend to gloss over such errors, but I think that is unfair to the man. Jefferson stood by his statements when he was alive, and so I think it is not our place to try to cover up his errors now. And that is why I had no problem writing "The World's Oldest Myth", explaining my objection to Jefferson's erroneous belief that farmers held some sort of innate virtue1, as well as writing "You Don't Drown in a Glass of Water - Vouchers Revisited", "Why Vouchers are not the Answer" and "Never Ascribe To Evil, A Discussion of Education", which implicitly attack his cherished plan for public schooling2. And that is also why I have no problem with my choice of quote, which also comes from Jefferson.
Allow me to make a statement that somewhat qualifies my "stupid" designation. As I will discuss below, the quote itself is not precisely foolish, or at least at one time it was not. When Jefferson spoke, it was probably an accurate statement of the world he saw about him. However, with the passage of time, conditions have changed, and what was arguably an accurate statement from Jefferson has turned into a completely erroneous statement, and thus, when I call it stupid, I do so in terms of those who continue to quote Jefferson, as if it applied to contemporary life and not to Jefferson himself.
But I seem to be burying this essay in qualifiers even before I get tot he quote itself. So, rather than drag this out any farther, allow me to present our quote:
Timid men prefer the calm of despotism to the tempestuous sea of LibertyIn Jefferson's era, this quote was most likely accurate in one very specific sense. As despotism was the predominant form of government in most contemporary states3, it makes sense to equate timidity with support of despotism, as political inertia would by default support the existing tyrannical governments. Thus, to say the timid favor despotism is almost tautological, at least if we assume political inactivity is an innate aspect of timid individuals.
On the other hand, as my discovery of this quote on a page of "Libertarian Quotes" demonstrates, many continue to put forth this quote as true, and that means that we can no longer view it in the same light. While possibly a tautology in Jefferson's age, it is no longer so. Our own state, whatever its failings, is far from a despotism, and many of the other states in the west are much the same. Which means that it is no longer a case of timid men failing to rise up against the despotic status quo, the quote implies that timidity leads one to actively support the despot, which is a very different thing, and not so easily supported by argument or the evidence of our senses.
Looking at the world today, the truth is that inertia is actually the friend of freedom. Despite the many problems with our states, there is still quite a bit of freedom left in our forms of government. Regulation may have intruded into much of our lives ("Collective Action and Government", ""...Then Who Would Do it?""), but it is still held in check, at least in the United States, by an implicit belief that any new intrusion needs at least a superficial justification. We have yet to accept regulation for the sake of regulation. And given that, inaction is probably the best friend of liberty, as the less government does, the less it intrudes.
And that would mean that the timid man, by definition inactive, unless bullied into obedience, tends to be a friend of freedom right now. What we have to fear in our modern world, is not the timid man, but the "heroic" individual who woudl save the world, who would make things perfect, who will force change ( "The Threat of Perfection", "Utopianism and Disaster", "The Fascination with Change", "Uniqueness"), it is the hero, the man of action, the bold reformer who is our greatest threat. Jefferson may have seen the timid allowing the perpetuation of despotism, but in our age the timid are not the foe, it is the reformer.
But this quote persists for very self-indulgent reasons. By describing the foes of freedom as timid, and those fighting for liberty as bold, it flatters the egos of libertarians that they are some sort of champions, fighting the good fight. It is somewhat juvenile, and it worries me that so many still need to hear that they are doing something heroic, but that seems to be the main appeal of such quotes. After all, unlike most of these quotes, it tells us little, provides little guidance, and says nothing more than that our opposite number are timid men. And even in that, as I have shown, it is no longer correct.
Which is why I have chosen to highlight such an inconsequential quote. After all, if we are going to bother to promote certain quotes, the least we can do is make sure they are both accurate and informative. This one is neither. Other than boosting the egos of the libertarian rank and file, it does little, and even in doing that it makes assertions that are dubious to say the least. At least when Jefferson spoke those words, they were accurate, and likely meant to goad those quietly supporting the status quo into action. But now, what does it do? Little or nothing, except stir to action a handful scared of being called timid, and, who being spurred into action, likely will take up causes no more likely to promote freedom than the timid men of Jefferson's day.
1. It is arguable whether Jefferson found some moral virtue in farming (though he would not be the first to do so), or whether he was ascribing virtue to farmers as part of a general support of property requirements for voting. The latter is an understandable position, especially given the fear many had of demagogues stirring up urban masses (though few such masses yet existed in the United States), but even if understandable, it would have had dire consequences in the long run. (See "Misunderstanding Democracy" and "Symmetry and Asymmetry in Government".)
2. At least Jefferson's plan was largely a state scheme, rather than a national one, and so would have avoided some of the worst aspects of our current system with is partial federal funding. Still, I stand by my position that public schooling is harmful. On the othe rhand, as a federalist, I have no objection to allowing each state to try its own system, free of federal intervention, to allow us to discover which is the best solution. After all, as Jefferson would have well understood, that is one of the many benefits of federalism (as opposed to the libertarian dream of imposing freedom from above. See "Why I Am Not A Libertarian" and "The Benefits of Federalism".)
3. Calling England of the day despotic was probably a bit of patriotic hyperbole on Jefferson's part. While Britain may have enacted laws which inspired the colonials to revolt, in a large part that revolt was brought about by the previous history of quite liberal government. Being used to the generally free government of English colonies, the imposition of laws which would have seemed insignificant in many other states, were seen as intolerable to the colonies. It is a testament to England's generally liberal government that laws such as the Stamp Act, or the quartering of troops in homes during war time, were seen as tyrannical.
Some may challenge my beliefs that the timid are more pro-freedom than pro-despotism, or that inaction is beneficial, but I contend both are true. Of course we will not reach total freedom, or anything approaching an ideal government without change, but for the moment the majority is hardly supporting a program of small, distributed government. Given that, change is moving almost always in the direction of more government, more centralization and less freedom. And thus, when the choice is action or inaction, until public understanding of the role of the state and the proper function of government has changed tremendously, inaction is almost always likely to preserve freedoms we currently have, while action will almost always grow government. ("Grow or Die, The Inevitable Expansion of Everything") As a result, inaction is often the friend of freedom, and the timid, by tending toward inaction, often do more to promote freedom than the most activist of libertarians. And it is for that reason I disagree with calling the timid enemies of liberty. At least in modern times.
I also wish to make clear that, speaking in general, freedom does not require brave or bold men to exist. I know we have a tendency to talk of struggles and bravery and fights and use very military terminology when speaking of freedom, but that metaphor is of limited accuracy. A largely timid electorate, but one which is well aware of the proper role of government and the dangers of granting centralized power to the state, can maintain freedom quite well. On the other hand, bold, brave men can create a perfectly horrible government, as the men who fought in World War I voted in FDR at home and Hitler abroad, and those who fought in World War II voted in the people who brought us to our present condition, starting with the Great Society programs. So there is no correlation between bravery and freedom. I agree to remain free we must have some willingness to defend ourselves, but beyond that baseline requirement, there is no additional need for especially bravery, just an understanding of the role of the state and the dangers of deviating from the proper course.
Originally posted in Random Notes on 2012/01/25.