Comments and observations on social and political trends and events.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Why Bin Laden Lost - Brendan Greeley

I have only a few minor quibbles with Brendan Greeley's perceptive commentary on Bin Laden. He starts his article with: "The United States has no purpose." I like to think he worded his intro that way simply to catch our attention. I’d put it differently: the purpose of our government is to protect our individual purpose. I agree: it’s not nearly as catchy. In essence Greeley is saying that our government does not establish a purpose to which all of us must march in lockstep but to protect the ability for each of us to take steps in the direction of our choice.

I agree with his overall point: that the founding principles of the U.S. protect our ability to pursue happiness. While Greeley tends to focus on consumption such as collecting figurines, joining a clogging troupe and taking road trips (these are his examples) he misses another aspect: creating values. Our Constitution protects both enjoying values and creating them.

Towards the end of his article Greeley says: “We humans follow base and pedestrian needs.” Unfortunately, whether he means it or not, I think this choice of words plays into the hands of those who think we should be committed to a “higher” purpose, such as serving others. There is a strong sentiment here in our own country to compel us to serve others whether we want to or not.

To me there is nothing base or pedestrian about fulfilling our needs. Yes, I don’t deny there are some activities (like watching Jersey Shore) which are base or pedestrian. At least I think they are and don’t partake in them; I also don’t recommend outlawing them.

I think it’s a mistake both philosophically and strategically to label activities that satisfy our wants or needs as merely “base” or “pedestrian”. Our ability to pursue these wants reflects the success of our approach: that we can transcend basic survival needs to pursue other desires that represent our individual needs, interests, wants and desires. We have the luxury of, say, collecting figurines, joining a clogging troupe and taking road trips precisely because of the spectacular and envied (or despised depending on your viewpoint) success of our system of limited government and the free market. This success rests on our freedom to create, enjoy and express values within a market and culture protected by laws based (in general) on individual rights. In other words our riches rest on our ability to pursue our own self-interest as long as we don’t violate the self-interest of others. We collect figurines, clog or travel because we feel they enrich our lives. We don’t feel the need to justify our existence by serving some “larger” purpose such as serving God, others or Allah. Nor should we.

With all of the above in mind I nonetheless highly recommend reading Greeley's article.

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