Fair Society or Free Society


To paraphrase Harlan Ellison:

A young man seeks out the holder of wisdom in his society. He finds the wise man up in a tower overlooking the city.

‘What can you tell me that will make sense of this vale of frustration and fear?’

The old man walks to the window with the young man and they look down on the city of humanity and says,‘There are a lot of stupid bastards out there, my son.’

My friend, Dan, is disturbed about our country. There are many foolish people doing stupid things. But I dither. There are many stupid and evil people doing nasty things, and they should be stopped.

Dan is disturbed by the photographers and bakers who refuse to accept business at gay weddings. He sees ‘white supremacists’ seeking to march in a demonstration against Jews as evil brutes hiding behind the Bill of Rights so they may threaten a small and vulnerable minority which is blameless. Dan is right. We both see a flood of foolish or evil people doing things we view as lamentable, but see no solution.

We all want fairness. We all desire freedom. We cannot have both on this Earth. And as it is 2017, the Millennium didn’t help one whit.

I come down on the side of freedom over fairness. This disturbs me: I hate siding with crude idiots.

I see the difference as a matter of paperwork.

Freedom is simple. One forbids the government from telling people what to do and prays fervently that the masses don’t throw away their freedom and power for opiates and lies. Many will. If the many become most, then we have created hell and do not deserve our freedom. No avenging angel will take our freedom. Nature’s laws will come in the form of chaos, terror, and the Man on a horse making promises, or as the little man with the odd mustache whispering lies about weak scapegoats we must eliminate. Dan fears he can see the beginning of this. I pray he is wrong, but believe that chaos and war are always in sight. The Four Horsemen are only a few bad decisions away at the best of times.

Fairness is complex. One limits the freedom of the stupid and the evil. Nice and elegant theory. Alas, this implies someone to judge. A wise philosopher king can solve all these problems in one stoke at the Gordian Knot. God has never shown himself willing to come down and sit in the Marble City to arrange our lives. [A logical and religious person may be excused for thinking that this reticence on God’s part may suggest that He thinks we ought sort out our own damned affairs.] We will have to make do with some weak, venal, and stupid human. A committee won’t work. It always comes down to one person. Who decides who makes the choices? Plato, Socrates, and that crowd have thought long and hard on this. Aristotle even had a hand at it. How do we avoid our new arbiter becoming Napoleon or Stalin or Commodus? In our case, I fear Egalabalus is about all the class and style we could muster.

Say we have our decider. Say he is not the declassé oaf we deserve. Will our judgment and taste atrophy? Without the struggle will our judgment and character fail to develop? Our posterity may remain spoiled and bewildered children until the fire walk of ongoing history forces them to mature. And say we have our philosopher to hold our hand. Who could stand the job? Freedom is simple but hard. Fair will be subject to whoever handles the paperwork. The hand which does the paperwork rules the world.

I fear that I stand with those open-mouthed proles who want their freedom of conscience to associate with those they will and avoid those they won’t. At the start of our experiment in freedom there was an exchange that is often in my mind. The English Civil War was devolving into a muddy mess. At the Putney debates it was asked –

‘Then for what did we fight?’

‘That one man’s will not be the law!’

In the intervening four hundred years I have not seen a better response. I really want one.


One comment on “Fair Society or Free Society

  1. Dan says:

    That is a good post and classic Ellison. I will say that it is not fairness that I want, though I will certainly strive for that, but honesty. Many people are quite happily willing to be led, as it is far more comfortable and reassuring for them, and they will argue hard and loudly for their right to be led. Such is their right. But if a Judas goat comes along, at least be willing to call it by name.

    My friend Dave is right, we are always just a few bad decisions away from an apocalypse, I accepted that at a relatively young age. However, in accepting that, I feel we must also be honest about it, to not deny the danger, and thus do our best to actively oppose it. Yes, entropy may be our final destination in this particular universe, but I see no reason to charge madly toward it.

    On leadership, I think most human societies demand that there only be one person making the decisions. What better scapegoat? We have a committee to stand around and wring their hands and influence things in the long term, but we hold up one person to sacrifice to the mob on an as needed basis. A single leader can be effective, usually in small groups. As a nation of people, not so much. If we must have a leader, look for the one that is willing to listen to others, even if his decision is ultimately his own.

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