The Baystate Objectivist

The Baystate Objectivist

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Thoreau for President

Here are some good quotes from the Massachusetts writer and philosopher Henry David Thoreau.

I heartily accept the motto, "That government is best which governs least;" and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, if finally amounts to this, which I also believe, - "That government is best which governs not at all;" and when men are prepared for it, that is the kind of government which they will have....

It is not a man's duty, as a matter of course, to devote himself to the eradication of any, even the most enormous wrong; he may properly have other concerns to engage him....

Trade and commerce, if they were not made of India rubber, would never manage to bounce over the obstacles which legislatures are continually putting in their way; and, if one were to judge these men wholly by the effects of their actions and not partly by their intentions, they would deserve to be classified and punished with those mischievous persons who put obstructions on the railroads....

I do not mean to prescribe rules to strong and valiant natures, who will mind their own affairs whether in heaven or hell, and perchance build more magnificently and spend more lavishly than the richest, nor to those who find encouragement and inspiration in precisely the present condition of things, and cherish it with the fondness and enthusiasm of lovers, and, to some some extent, I reckon myself in this number; I do not speak to those who are well employed, in whatever circumstances, and they know whether they are well employed or not; but mainly to the mass of men who are discontented, and idly complaining of the hardness of their lot or of the times, when they might improve them....

It has been observed that the lives led by those living in 1900 more resembled the lives of those who lived at the time of Julius Caesar than the lives of those living today resembles the lives of those alive in 1900. Henry David Thoreau, living in the 1800's, certainly lived in a society far removed in both size and complexity from the America we know today.

For this reason, it is a common criticism of Thoreau's ideas that whatever value his opinions and observations may have had in his own time, they have little practical value to modern readers. According to this view, mankind has gone past a point of no return in terms of the growth and complexity of our society and that there is no simplifying it no matter how much we may desire to do so.

But what if America were somehow transformed in a way that was in accordance with the theories of Thoreau? Never mind the practical considerations of how such a transformation could occur. Instead let's just imagine that the necessary reforms and changes required to make our country in harmony with Thoreau's ideas could somehow suddenly occur. What kind of an America would we be living in?

Not surprisingly, the first area where we would have to make changes is in our government. Thoreau was deeply skeptical of democracy. He complained that democracy only insured that the will of the majority would prevail. Democracy does not however, guarantee that the will of the majority would be logical or just, or that the rights of those holding minority views would be adequately protected. Instead he wrote of a "wise minority" of superior people who should not be hindered by by public opinion and its resulting laws. Yet despite his criticism, Thoreau offered no alternative to democracy other than a Utopian vision of self-governing, self-reliant individuals that he himself admitted was unlikely to work in practice.

At heart Thoreau was an anarchist who believed that the ideal government "governed not at all" but admitting that such a government could not arise until "men are prepared for it," and did not consider the people of his own time prepared for such an experiment any more than the people of today are. Therefore, since Thoreau offered no realistic alternative to democracy - which despite its flaws has worked better than any other system to preserve freedom and individual rights - then we might assume that our new government by the principles of Thoreau could retain its present democratic form, but without much enthusiasm and only as the acceptance of a lesser evil.

Though Thoreau preferred anarchy, he wrote that he would "heartily accept" the notion that the "government governs best that governs least." Therefore to create a government Thoreau would have approved of we would have to look at our current government and decide what is the absolute minimum, the very least we can get along with without government aid. How can we, as Thoreau urges us, have the concept of minimalist government acted up to more rapidly and systematically?

First we would have to define what is absolutely essential, beyond any argument, for our government to do. One thing that comes quickly to mind is defense. In this nuclear age, the United States would be quickly intimidated by its enemies without some kind of national defense. Therefore, after making every attempt to trim its excesses, we'll leave the military more or less intact.

The threats to our freedom and safety do not come only from foreign countries. We are also threatened from within by criminals of all types. Obviously our trimmed down government would have to include money for the police. Furthermore, since there will always be a need to find people either guilty or innocent of crimes, and have disagreements settled, so the courts must be kept as they are.

Since we are searching for the absolute minimum, let's assume this is all and see what we have. For one thing, we now have a federal government less than half its current size and cost. Thereby we could proceed at once with massive tax cuts. Thoreau, who preferred jail over paying a $1.50 poll tax, would be delighted by this phase of our reforms. Taxes would be slashed at the state and local levels as well, as these lesser governments were also shrunk to "govern least." The result would be at least 15 to 25 percent increase in the take home pay of every working American, depending upon what income bracket they fall into.

Next we would have to change some laws. Thoreau hated government interference in the economy, comparing government regulators of business to "those mischievous individuals who put obstructions on the railroads" and suggested that "they deserve to be classed and punished" accordingly. To prevent further government mischief in the economy, we could amend the constitution to create a complete separation between the state and economics, modeled on the separation between church and state. But what about dishonest and unethical business practices? Remember, we still have our courts to correct injustices on a case by case basis. As many a jailed evangelist could attest, the separation between church and state does not offer protection to scoundrels and neither would a separation between government and business.

As for social programs, there is little question that Thoreau would have disapproved of them. As a militant individualist, Thoreau disliked the interference in one's life of duties imposed as moral obligations. He believed that no social problems, "even the most enormous wrong," imposed any duty whatever on anyone. "One may properly have other concerns," he said simply. So would the poor simply be abandoned in Thoreau's America? No, because some people would voluntarily help and charitable organizations would still exist. Best of all, without government funding, these organizations would be continually forced to justify their existence to their contributors and prove to them that their contributions were not being wasted on a bloated bureaucracy and over-paid administrators.

What about education? Thoreau was no fan of formal education. He scoffed at his own achievements at Harvard, asking, "What demon possessed me that I behaved so well?" Thoreau would probably be horrified at the sight of today's publicly financed day-care to graduate school educational system, with all of it under government control. There could be no role for public schools in a Thoreau -minded America. Yet education would almost certainly continue to thrive even without government funding. There would still be plenty of private schools around, who would no doubt enjoy an enormous boom in business. Thousands of new private elementary and high schools would spring up overnight. Parents would be able to pick and choose among schools fiercely competing in quality and price, while reflecting a wide range of educational philosophies. The one size fits all model of the public schools would cease to exist.

A common criticism of Thoreau's philosophy of simplification is that if widely practiced it would damage our economy. They say that people looking to simplify their lives buy less, which would be bad for business. Yet they overlook that Thoreau believed that you could live in contentment without rejecting the material world ("build more magnificently and spend more lavishly than the richest") although he saw few doing so who seemed happy. Still, he conceded that there were those who enjoyed the world as it is "with the fondness and enthusiasm of lovers." He recognized that one could live happily in any walk of life, or as he put it "in whatever circumstances," listing no exceptions.

Thoreau never intended to suggest that we give up all our possessions and go live in shacks in the woods. The particulars of Thoreau's experiment at Walden are not meant to be important. What he means to do is to pose to his readers the following question: How unhappy will you have to become before you will give up the things that make you miserable?

Thoreau's argument with materialism was not with any particular possessions per se, but with the wasting of the precious moments of one's life on things that are so time-consuming to acquire that the real pleasures of your life, whatever they may be, cannot be pursued. Would Thoreau want us to give up our washing machines so that we could kneel by a riverbank for hours every week, unable to do what we want because we have to wash our clothes? Of course not. Thoreau wasn't claiming that possessions were bad, but that they come with a hidden cost in the time and effort lost to acquire them. Walden was an attempt to to point out that people should reckon that cost and measure it against their own values.

Thoreau had an acute appreciation of the value of leisure time well-spent. He was not an advocate of self-sacrifice for its own sake. To an individualist like Thoreau, the self is the one thing that must never be sacrificed.

So would a society based on the principles of Thoreau have a basket case economy? No, because as people gave up some unpleasant (to them) activities, they would shift their focus to other areas which did make them happy. There is plenty of room for cars, cell phones and computers in such a society.

I admit there is a fundamental flaw to this fantasy of an America consisting of followers of Thoreau - and that is that it is something of a contradiction. To understand and practice his theories is to first and foremost not to be a follower of anyone. If the writings of Thoreau can be summed up in just three words, those words would be THINK FOR YOURSELF.

Yet its hard not to feel that contemplating the concepts of Thoreau would move the country and our society in a better direction than it currently is.

Finally, here is another tasteless but hilarious video, brought to my attention by a person of Chinese ancestry.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thoreau had a beautiful mind.