Dear Reader (and those of you experiencing parenthetical-joke phantom pain),
The other day I wrote this short piece on Israel’s Independence Day over at the Enterprise Blog. In it I covered a theme familiar to longtime G-File readers (by which I do not refer to slow readers who take a long time reading the G-File but rather people who might remember ten-year-old columns).That theme? The tendency to assume that the future will unfold as a straight-line projection of today.
Specifically, I noted that Israel’s existence is a blip on the radar, historically speaking, and the idea that it will be around forever is actually a pretty debatable assumption based upon a granite-like faith that tomorrow will look a lot like today.
But what got me revisiting the topic was actually a conversation I had with an AEI colleague about libertarians and family policy (those of you who bet that my getting out of the basement and into an office would make me less dorky, well, you’re going to have to pay up).
I don’t follow libertarian family policy (never mind conservative family policy, liberal family policy, or even Shining Path Maoist family policy) too closely, though I know some very smart people who’re involved in it. Anyway, the conversation turned to the claim made by many libertarians, as well as folks like Al Gore (wolfsbane to libertarians), that modern society has changed so much that it is only right and rational that family structure change, too.
Here’s my problem with this sort of thinking, which I don’t think is unreasonable on its face. Some institutions endure because they are, well, enduring.
The whole point of certain institutions is that they are insurance policies against the unknown future (picture G. Gordon Liddy talking about gold, only replace it with “the family”). The phrase “you can always count on family” may not be literally true, but it is more true than “you can always count on your old college roommate.” When times are great, the demands of family (or religion, or good manners, or thriftiness, or a thousand other institutions, customs, and habits of the heart that we can throw under the bulwark of “tradition”) might often seem like too much unnecessary baggage to carry around. But when things hit the fan, family is there in a way that other people aren’t. Not because those other people are bad, but because your family is your family.
But it’s important to keep in mind that the family – or the Bill of Rights, or good manners, whatever – isn’t a catastrophic insurance policy. The value of these institutions is best understood during a time of crisis, but the influence of these institutions is constant, even in times of calm luxury. The fact that these institutions exist forecloses certain options and avenues for reformers who yearn for a blanker social slate.
The family, like marriage, is an institution that predates our Constitution and the very concept of democracy, never mind modernity. That is not to say that it hasn’t evolved and changed or that conservatives should never, ever contemplate further changes and greater evolution. It is simply to say that we should do so carefully, reservedly, humbly, in full knowledge that tomorrow may look as little like today as yesterday did.
Keep It Simple, Keep It Loaded
A simple way of grasping this is to think of guns. There are lots of good arguments about gun rights. But it amazes me how often these debates boil down to whether you can imagine that tomorrow will look a lot different than today. So many liberals dismiss the “right to revolution” arguments on the grounds that they can’t imagine its ever being necessary. Nor can they imagine a military invasion or a collapse of the social order sufficiently chaotic to justify the laws of self-preservation.
And don’t even get me started on zombies.
I hope these unimaginative liberals are right. But I can tell you this: When the zombies rise, I won’t be racing to the homes of friends who happened to be lifetime members of Handgun Control Inc. I will be heading North to Alaska, where I have family and they have guns, lots and lots of guns. And, more to the point, while the prevalence of guns in our society will do little to nothing to prevent the zombie menace from ever arising, those guns go a long way toward circumscribing the menu of available policy options for the state. In other words, the existence of gun rights makes the “need” for gun rights seem less apparent.
Quote of the Day
I would be remiss if I didn’t make this the quote of the day:
In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, ‘I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.’ To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”
– G.K. Chesterton, The Thing
No, no. Different Thing.
Oh, so anyway, I got started on all of this stuff about the fallacy of assuming tomorrow will look like today and I forgot why I brought it up in the first place: I need a word for it. Presentism isn’t right, because that’s the historiographical faux pas of imposing today’s biases on the past. Futurism doesn’t work because that’s either a pre-fascist artistic movement of early-20th-century Italy or another word for futurology, the “science” of selling unfalsifiable predictions to idiots.
Any suggestions? I’d prefer not to have a neologism, but if that’s what’s required, so be it.
We are still debating surgery on his Achilles’ heel injury. But I actually have a story that fits with the theme of this “news”letter. This morning, my wife found two dogs on the front lawn. They weren’t from around here. One was big and labby, the other a smallish pit bull mix. My wife read their tags and saw that they live a few blocks away. She invited them into the house and called the owner, who explained that his brand new InvisiFence sucks – and that he’d be right over to pick up his dogs.
Meanwhile, Cosmo was infuriated by this complete breach of protocol. “What the hell is this?” he kept asking. “The whole system is breaking down!”
Then the pit-bullish feller started to eat out of Cosmo’s food bowl. Cosmotographer just lost it. They had a fight, and Coz held his own. Anyway, the Fair Jessica broke it all up and everything worked out fine. But for Cosmo, this was proof that his years of front-porch vigilance were entirely justified. No unwelcome dog had breached the perimeter in nearly a decade and then, all of a sudden, like that bright morning in Red Dawn when the Soviets dropped from the sky, Everything Changed. Worse, he discovered that his own mother is a security liability.
Again, you never know how different tomorrow will be from today.
Keep Your Eyes Peeled!
A preview of my big lead essay in Commentary is allegedly going to go up on their website early in the next couple days. I expect it will cause quite a fuss.