Devilish Details

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I recently lunched with my friend Greg, an entrepreneur and enthusiastic libertarian. We chatted about our work and once warmed up, turned to politics, a touchy subject between us.

He opened with proud 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 freedom solves everything but what's solved by constraint. We tune society through a combination of freedom and constraint, and the devil's in the details. Then he said something marvelous.

"Yes," he said, "but those details don't interest me."

My voice went gentle. I loved his honesty, his concession of what's true for us all, me included. We dismiss as irrelevant what's actually only hard for our lazy minds to understand. There's the thinking that circumstances demand and the thinking we're willing or able to supply. Where our supply doesn't meet demand, we can always find a rationalization, a way of turning "that's boring" into "that's irrelevant." Often we rationalize with idealistic principles impossible to live by, like that freedom solves everything.


The media's new breed of political bloviators are master chefs demonstrating how to cook ever grander opinion souffles, turning meager thinking into something impractical but 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 practical details.

With a Perspective, I'm Jeremy Sherman.

Jeremy Sherman is an evolutionary epistemologist teaching at the University of San Francisco.