Want and Need

I have blogged several times over the years about the important distinction between what we want and what we need. I usually couch the discussion in the context of education where I note that children should be taught what they need in order to become autonomous adults rather than what they want as children with passing whims. The distinction has always seemed to me to be at the heart of education and a possible suggestion as to why the United States now trails many of the other “developed” countries in educating the young. Our schools (and our parents, by the way) are focused on what the young want and afraid to demand that they study those subjects they will need later on in life. The parents give into their kids for a variety of reasons, but largely because  they think it will buy their children’ love or because that is what the so-called experts have told them is the proper thing to do.

Now comes the coronavirus and the following story tells us that the chickens seem to have come home to roost — at least in Wisconsin:

Wisconsin saw a record number of new coronavirus cases and deaths reported in a single day on Wednesday, two weeks after the state’s Supreme Court struck down its statewide stay-at-home order.

The state reported 599 new known COVID-19 cases on Wednesday with 22 known deaths, according to Wisconsin’s Department of Health Services, the highest recorded daily rise since the pandemic began there. As of Wednesday, the state had more than 16,460 known cases and 539 known deaths, according to the department.

In a word, the folks in Wisconsin were disturbed enough about being told they must be quarantined in order to help control the virus that they went to court to have the regulation removed so they could go about their business as usual. Well, they went back to business as we can expect it when we take off our rose-colored glasses.

I dare say the same results will or would happen in Michigan where armed protesters stormed the governor’s office to demand that the quarantine be lifted in that state. It’s what we want.

But it is not what we need. When will we learn?

I am not a big fan of the government telling us how to live our lives, but in this case we are talking about older folks and folks with previous medical conditions whose lives are at stake if we simply continue to act on impulse and pretend that the virus isn’t there. Even John Stuart Mill, the arch-defender of libertarian values would agree that where the health and well-being of others is involved laws and  regulations are required — and morally justified.

So many of the young (especially) believe that the virus will not affect them seriously and have decided that they will take a chance. They forget, or ignore the fact, that they might carry the virus to a grandmother or a grandfather, or someone they are close to who suffers from, say, asthma. And those persons may well die because of the kids’ determination to do what they want.

But that’s what they have been taught in the home as well as in school. Just tell those in positions of authority what you want and they will deliver it to you. If they pretend not to hear, shout louder or, possibly, bring a weapon.

The chickens, as I said, have come home to roost.

Wise Words

I have no idea who wrote the following piece, but it strikes me as worthy of wider dissemination than it has had so far. My son sent it to me the other day and said, simply, “it was written by a co-worker.” It strikes me as particularly important given the fact that we are all feeling fed-up with the coronavirus and all that it entails. We simply cannot wait until things go “back to normal” — refusing to admit to ourselves that there may be no return to normal and that the “new normal” will be like nothing we have ever experienced.

In any event, we wallow in self-pity since few of us has ever had to deny ourselves much of what we want. This is, after all, the “Age of Entitlement” not only in the schools but in the homes as well. We buy on plastic and run up our credit cards rather than wait until we have the money in savings. We want what we want when we want it. Period. We simply cannot wait for tomorrow as today is here and we know what we want and there are always ways to get it. Or so we have been taught.

Except in the present case: the virus seems to be in control and we simply sit at home and express our frustration and impatience. We have very little frame of reference since we are ignorant of history and this piece helps to fill in some of the gaps. Some of them.

Maybe we don’t have it that bad?

It’s a mess out there now. Hard to discern between what’s a real threat and what is just simple panic and hysteria. For a small amount of perspective at this moment, imagine you were born in 1900.

On your 14th birthday, World War I starts, and ends on your 18th birthday. 22 million people perish in that war. Later in the year, a Spanish Flu epidemic hits the planet and runs until your 20th birthday. 50 million people die from it in those two years. Yes, 50 million.

On your 29th birthday, the Great Depression begins. Unemployment hits 25%, the World GDP drops 27%. That runs until you are 33. The country nearly collapses along with the world economy.

When you turn 39, World War II starts. You aren’t even over the hill yet. And don’t try to catch your breath, because on your 41st birthday, the United States is fully pulled into WWII. Between your 39th and 45th birthday, 75 million people perish in the war.

Smallpox was an epidemic until you were in your 40’s, as it killed 300 million people during your lifetime.

At 50, the Korean War starts. 5 million perish. From your birth, until you are 55, you dealt with the fear of Polio epidemics each summer. You experience friends and family contracting polio and being paralyzed or dying.

At 55, the Vietnam War begins and doesn’t end for 20 years. 4 million people perish in that conflict. During the Cold War, you lived each day with the fear of nuclear annihilation. On your 62nd birthday you have the Cuban Missile Crisis, a tipping point in the Cold War. Life on our planet, as we know it, almost ended. When you turn 75, the Vietnam War finally ends.

Think of everyone on the planet born in 1900. How did they endure all of that? When you were a kid and didn’t think your 85-year-old grandparent understood how hard school was. Yet they survived through everything listed above. Perspective is an art. Refined and enlightening as time goes on. Let’s try and keep things in perspective. Your parents and grandparents were called on to endure all of the above – You are called on to stay home and sit on your couch.

This too shall pass.

Let’s hope so. In the meantime, let’s also hope we somehow develop the virtue of patience and don’t blindly stumble toward an elusive goal of normalcy before prudence and science tell us it is time.

Head In The Sand

I spent a lifetime trying to help young people take possession of their own minds, helping them think and ask fundamental questions. I often wondered if mine was a futile and perhaps even a wrong-headed task. But then I came up with thoughts like the following which I posted about six years ago and which still ring true.

I sometimes I wish I could join the ranks of the ignorant, because I am told that ignorance is bliss — and I would believe it. I would also believe:

• that global warming is a fiction invented by liberal (and therefore “wrong-headed”) scientists and our planet is not under threat by greedy capitalists.

• that elected officials are smarter than I and are only concerned about the common good. And mine.

• that the armed forces are comprised of dedicated young men and women who have devoted their lives to protecting my freedom — and not the interests of Big Oil.

• that Big Oil is devoted to developing better and cheaper ways to make my life more comfortable, and not, as some insist, to increasing their already massive profits.

• that the continued use of torture and drones will eventually win the war on terror — and not simply label this country as morally bankrupt and increase by tenfold the numbers of would-be terrorists who hate me and my country (and everything we stand for).

• that Wall Street provides the paradigm of success by which we should all guide our lives.

• that corporate CEOs are devoted to improving their company’s products and the lot of their employees rather than cutting corners and pocketing more than 400 times what the folks who work for them make.

• that Christmas was about “Peace on Earth” and not materialism and profits for retailers.

• that the money the very wealthy spend backing selected politicians will produce the best and brightest leaders in Congress who will transcend party loyalties and work together for the common good.

• that our democracy is a government of, by, and for the people and not of, by, and for the few who control the vast majority of wealth in this country.

• that the more people who carry guns the safer the world would be.

• that the players on my favorite sports teams aren’t taking PEDs and that the Mafia never gets involved in fixing sporting events — at any level.

• that everything I hear and see on Fox News is the truth.

(I would only add that I would now think the coronavirus will be over by Easter because our president has willed it to be so. But I know better.)

As I say, I wish I could believe these things because I suspect I would be more at peace and better able to sleep soundly at night, confident that all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds (as Pangloss would have it). But then I would be delusional, and I don’t think I want to be that. So I will continue to read and think and attempt to make sense of the little I know while I try to be as realistic as possible about the things going on around me — bearing in mind the words of the very wise Socrates who said that “the unexamined life is not worth living.”

Paternalism II

I was recently accused of sounding like Donald Trump in suggesting that the tendency on the part of the “powers that be” to tell us what is good for us is “paternalistic.” I argued that those who cherish their freedom should be outraged that the state, or any other agency, should tell us what is the best course of action. In saying this I noted that the freedom that is so highly prized carries with it the responsibility to act with respect toward other people. Indeed, my point was that in taking this giant step toward paternalism in the case of the caronaviorus we are being told we are too stupid to decide what steps we should take for ourselves.

My position is closer to that of John Stuart Mill in his essay “On Liberty” than it is to Donald Trump — if anyone is in a position to say exactly what it is that the man is saying. I confess I don’t understand much of what he says. But from what I do understand the two men seem to be at polar opposites on any intellectual scale with which I am familiar. Mill’s “very simple principle” says, in effect, that there are no moral grounds for stopping a person from doing something unless it is clear that his or her actions will harm another person. And let’s be clear about this: we are talking about intentional harm — as when a woman is abused or a thief holds up another at gun point. Mill is not talking about “incidental” harm, that is, harm the person cannot possibly be said to know he or she is inflicting on another — as in the case of attending a sporting event while one (unknowingly) carries the virus.

Now it might be said that by telling people not to attend sporting events the state is prohibiting us from infecting others with the virus, thereby harming them. But this assumes that we have the virus and that those who do have it, or might have it, are unable to make the decision to stay at home and seek medical attention. Or, as noted above, it ignores the case of the innocent carrier who infects others without knowing it: in that case the responsible thing to do is to make sure one is not a carrier before attending a packed event. The claim that we need to be told when to attend or not to attend a sporting event rests on the assumption that we are all a bunch of lemmings who blindly follow the latest leader who wants us to attend next Friday’s NBA Basketball game between the Wolves and the Clippers. We don’t have enough sense to stay at home and watch it on television. We are too stupid to know that helmets do protect those who ride a motorcycle, seat belts do protect those in car crashes, and infant car seats do protect the very young. Thus laws are written and enforced.

But, and here’s the heart and soul of the comment that accused me of Trumpism (the worst thing anyone can say about another person): We ARE too stupid. I can’t disagree. My argument, like Mill’s, assumes that reasonable people will make reasonable decisions and act rationally. And this assumption cannot hold up to empirical evidence. Folks really are too stupid to do the sensible thing. We must be told.

But what this means is that the libertarian dream and the argument against paternalism is based on a “best of all possible worlds” scenario. In that world people would do the smart thing. In this world, sad to sad (and increasingly) we do not. Thus steps taken to protect us all from the coronavirus are justified — and those who scream about their freedoms have no idea what they are screaming about. They certainly do not want to accept the responsibility that goes along hand in hand with freedom. You cannot have one without the other.


The coronavirus has the world in a dither — like a Christian Scientist with appendicitis (as Tom Lehrer might say). Despite the fact that a very low percentage of those who contract the virus actually die, steps are being taken that must give us pause.

Italy has banned all spectators from all sporting events during the month of March. There’s even talk about cancelling all sporting events. Around the world, and increasingly in this country as well, events are being cancelled right and left. Additionally, we read that the ASEAN Conference, Google News Initiative, Geneva International Auto Show, various concerts in Asia and elsewhere, and the Mobile World Congress, among many others, have been cancelled despite the fact that many of these events bring a great deal of money to the region and are immensely popular. Some companies in the United States are prohibiting their employees from air travel — even for personal vacations!

And so it goes. Big Brother is taking care of us. The assumption appears to be that we are not able to decide for ourselves whether we can take a chance to be with other people in the face of a growing pandemic. But isn’t that our decision? On what grounds can we defend the determination by various agencies to keep us indoors and away from others who might pass the virus along?

Most of the expert opinion I have read suggests that if we take precautions we can avoid contracting the virus. But apparently we are not trusted to take those steps so we are being told how to behave. This is what is called “paternalism.” Daddy is taking care of us because we are too stupid to take care of ourselves.

There are other instances of paternalism, of course, such as laws enforcing the use of infant car carriers and, my personal favorite, the law requiring helmets for motorcycle riders. Laws are generally made to protect us from others who might harm us, but in the case of helmet laws one hears the claim that when a person is thrown from a motorcycle he or she may incur health costs that will eventually be passed along to us all — as will the increased insurance rates. But this argument is weak and we simply look the other way as someone with Big Hands puts our child in a car seat or a helmet on us before we take off on our motorcycle.

What’s the problem here? It is, among other things, an attempt on the part of those in power to tell others how they must behave: it is a diminishing of our freedom. And while we love to kick and scream about our freedom, we seem perfectly content to have various agencies tell us what is good for us. I do wonder if it comes down the the fact that we really would prefer not to take the responsibility that freedom involves.

There seem to be a great many forces in this culture that deprive each of us of our autonomy. Many of the laws we obey are not only well-meaning but also necessary. There are the things we do that might harm others and which ought therefore to be prohibited. But when our behavior affects no one but ourselves — such as wearing a helmet when riding a motorcycle or attending a sporting event — those restrictions seem to me to be well-meaning but unacceptable. We must presume not that folks are too stupid to take care of themselves; we must presume that folks can take care of themselves. And if they can’t so much the worse for them.

Paternalism is one of the many hidden forces that operate upon each of us and are based on the faulty premise that we cannot take care of ourselves. We should be much more upset about those restrictions than we are. And this is not an angry young radical speaking. This is an aged somewhat moderate but occasionally outraged retired person who is simply astounded by what is going on around him.

I do not mean to belittle the seriousness of the coronavirus. It is something we need to take seriously. But it is also something that we really ought to be able to handle with expert advice and not by needless restrictions on our behavior based on the assumption that we are even more stupid than we are in fact.