RERUN–The Scribes and the Idea of Freedom

(Originally posted in October of 2010. I was reminded of this post by Stuart Schneiderman’s post here about the growing acceptance of the idea that government knows best what’s good for everyone..and should have the power to make them do it. I should note that Cass Sunstein is no longer an Obama Czar but is back to being a law professor.)

I haven’t read Jonathan Franzen’s novel, Freedom, but Erin O’Connor has been reading it and reviews it here. Based on her summary, it seems that Franzen’s basic opinion about freedom is this: he doesn’t like it very much. Consider for example these excerpts:

…the American experiment of self-government, an experiment statistically skewed from the outset, because it wasn’t the people with sociable genes who fled the crowded Old World for the new continent; it was the people who didn’t get along well with others.…also: The personality susceptible to the dream of limitless freedom is a personality also prone, should the dream ever sour, to misanthropy and rage.

Erin summarizes:

“Freedom,” for Franzen, is a red herring. As a national ideal, it paralyzes us, preventing government from behaving with the rationalism of European nations (there are passages about this in the book). And, on a personal level, it is simply immiserating. Every last one of Franzen’s major characters suffers from the burden of too many choices.

In a novel, of course, one cannot assume that opinions expressed by the characters are those of the author himself–but in this case, it seems to me that they likely are, and this opinion appears to be shared by most commenters at Erin’s post.

What really struck me in Erin’s review is her remark that I am starting to think that this novel may amount to a fictional companion piece for Cass Sunstein’s Nudge..the referenced work being not a novel, but a book about social, economic, and political policy co-authored by Cass Sunstein, who is now runnning the Office of Regulatory and Information Policy for the Obama administration. (See a review of Nudge, Erin’s post about the book, and my post about some of Sunstein’s policy ideas.)


Shortly after reading Erin’s review, I encountered this NYT article by a philosophy professor who talks about the “seething anger” of the Tea Parties. Two excerpts: The great and inspiring metaphysical fantasy of independence and freedom is simply a fantasy of destruction and To date, the Tea Party has committed only the minor, almost atmospheric violences of propagating falsehoods, calumny and the disruption of the occasions for political speech — the last already to great and distorting effect. (I would think a philosophy professor should be aware that “propagating falsehoods,” even if such a charge were true, is not violence–and asserting that it is seems to me to be inherently undercutting of free speech and to be intellectually preparing the battlefield for various forms of speech-control.)

Indeed, I’ve run into quite a few articles lately in which the memes people are bad at making choices and too much choice makes people unhappy are propagated. Often, the insights of behavioral economics are used or misused to support this thesis. The overall idea seems to be that people will be both better-off and happier if more of their life decisions are made for them by better-qualified elites. (The question of why the conceptual and emotional traps that affect human decision-making don’t also apply to these elites–the question of “who will nudge the nudgers”–tends to go unanswered.)

It has been believed for some time that intellectuals tend to be especially supportive of freedom..but it’s not clear that this really has historical warrant, especially if we generalize “intellectuals” to “the scribe class”, i.e., people who read and write for a living, ranging from medieval clerics to British schoolmasters of the Thomas Arnold era to modern college professors. Indeed, the attacks on individual freedom and choice seem to be propagating mainly among the members of our modern scribe class. I certainly don’t think there is any kind of central Illuminati directing the propagation of these memes; however, many members of this class clearly feel threatened by current turns of political opinion, and the high degree of conformity and groupthink within this class ensures rapid transmission of ideas that are judged to be socially acceptable in their circles. It appears that the critique of choice is now such an idea.

Original CB discussion thread here.

2 thoughts on “RERUN–The Scribes and the Idea of Freedom”

  1. The history of Medieval Europe and of the late Roman Empire is filled with examples of invention and innovation. Joel Mokyr’s books, The Lever of Riches and The Gifts of Athena, show what many of these technological advances were and how they occurred. Some were obvious but many were real innovation. The theme of his works (I haven’t read his newest book The Enlightened Economy, but should, is that invention and technology progressed when the atmosphere, as in England in the 19th century, was permissive but nothing like the Industrial Revolution occurred without a system of property laws and patent law. Aside from the more obvious and utilitarian invention, like the Mouldboard Plow, most of these developments came to a dead end, like the Roman steam engine, or aeolipile, for lack of a system of property laws and a middle class interested in independent work.

    The Enlightenment that led to the Industrial Revolution began in England, or more properly, Scotland and ran until about 1865 when it began to wane due to social conditions and attitudes toward mechanics and lower class guilds. The real triumph of the Industrial Revolution was in The United States where the population wasn’t “the people with sociable genes” but individualists like Edison and Eli Whitney who built the industries.

    For example: Whitney’s mother, Elizabeth Fay, died in 1777, when he was 11.[2] At age 14 he operated a profitable nail manufacturing operation in his father’s workshop during the Revolutionary War.[3]

    Because his stepmother opposed his wish to attend college, Whitney worked as a farm laborer and school teacher to save money. He prepared for Yale at Leicester Academy…(now Becker College) and under the tutelage of Rev. Elizur Goodrich of Durham, Connecticut, he entered the Class of 1789, and graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1792.[1][4] Whitney expected to study law but, finding himself short of funds, accepted an offer to go to South Carolina as a private tutor.

    Earlier eras in the western world would not have offered opportunities for these men.

    In China, great inventions were developed prior to the 15th century but the Ming Dynasty put an end to this period by banning many innovations, including ship building, and by the time western explorers reached China three centuries later, all knowledge of metallurgy had vanished. Records of the lost innovations were found in Japan.

    Central planning and innovation do not combine well as Lysenko could explain.

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