Insight Is a Terrible Thing to Waste

By: Gary Galles
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One of the dangers facing those who have come to believe in a certain philosophy or approach is the temptation to ignore or reject useful insight from those who are not “pure” enough—those who deviate from “the Truth” either in their position on certain issues or because of the hypocrisy of actions inconsistent with their alleged beliefs.

That is bad strategy. After all, in a world where, ultimately, ideas are what matters, one cannot successfully rebut incorrect positions one is ignorant of. But it also wastes useful insights.

Rejecting an insight because of hypocrisy that is unrelated to that insight or which does not disprove it is a logical error, with potentially serious consequences. For instance, that approach would put the wisdom of America’s founders “out of bounds,” particularly those whose actions once they had power differed from the principles they enumerated and fought for beforehand. Their abuses, once in power, testify to power’s ability to corrupt, but do nothing to reject their insights into the importance of liberty and the corollary need to curb government.

Restricting oneself to the insights of those who are “pure” amounts to an appeal to authority. Such consistency adds important endorsement to the power of a valid insight (one reason why libertarians are so fond of Murray Rothbard). That is particularly important in a complex world, where one can easily miss important incentives or causation mechanisms, undermining the degree of certainty one can have about deductions to be drawn. Those who have earned reputations for recognizing what others miss act as insurance against such potential mistakes. Yet a true statement is true regardless of whether the source is “pure of heart and action,” just as falsehoods that come from good men do not become true because they are stated by good men.

People also tend to shy away from giving much consideration to those viewed as deviating from “the Truth” in some of their actions. But such deviations do not justify ignoring their contributions.

In some situations, there may be only two basic positions possible—support for a particular group, especially the one in power, or joining with the opposition. Especially in violent disputes, one may be unable to opt out, forcing a choice between two imperfect options. Joining the opposition, often far from pure, may yet be the only effective means of opposing a greater evil (e.g., the resistance in World War II). That does not, however, amount to endorsing everything those in the opposition stand for. That is why defending the currently abused side can make the most sense (in the limited sense that in such choices, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”), even if their positive program, should they come to power, would also be abusive of those to be “ruled.”

Similarly, someone can have a valid objection to something that is wrong, without having an adequate conception of what is right or of what would best correct the wrong in view. As a result, just because you disagree with someone else’s broader understanding or “solution” does not justify throwing out their valid insights with their confusion. This seems most frequent in considerations of justice—I can often recognize when an injustice is imposed on me, but that does not mean my preferred “solution” either solves the injustice or does so without imposing new injustices on others (e.g., one of the attributes of negative rights is that they prevent injustice without causing injustice elsewhere, which positive rights cannot).

One practical consequence is that we can learn from and be inspired by victims of abuse and tyranny, who recognize the wrongs, without endorsing their possibly misguided or even harmful “solutions.”

A good example of someone generally overlooked by libertarians for certain “indiscretions” is Albert Camus, the 1957 Nobel Laureate in Literature, whose birthday is November 7. One can easily take issue with or be unconvinced by his existentialism or his conclusion that everything comes back to absurdity. One can also object to actions such as his brief membership in the Communist party, his personal infidelities, etc. But despite those issues, his defense of liberty against tyranny, particularly in World War II and its aftermath, was very important. Consider just a few of his most important insights.

  • The real passion of the twentieth century is servitude.
  • Political utopias justified in advance any enterprises whatever.
  • The welfare of the people…has always been the alibi of tyrants, and it provides the further advantage of giving the servants of tyranny a good conscience.
  • The tyrannies of today…no longer admit of silence or neutrality. One has to take a stand, be either for or against. Well, in that case, I am against.
  • The only conception of freedom I can have is that of the prisoner or the individual in the midst of the state. The only one I know is freedom of thought and action.
  • Absolute domination by the law does not represent liberty, but without law there is no freedom.
  • Freedom is not a gift received from the State or leader.
  • Freedom is not a reward or a decoration that is celebrated with champagne…It’s a long distance race, quite solitary and very exhausting.
  • Freedom is nothing else but a chance to get better, whereas enslavement is a certainty of the worse.
  • Liberty ultimately seems to me, for societies and for individuals…the supreme good that governs all others.
  • It is the job of thinking people not to be on the side of the executioners. Is it possible…to reject injustice without ceasing to acclaim the nature of man and the beauty of the world? Our answer is yes.
  • Instead of killing and dying in order to produce the being that we are not, we have to live and let live in order to create what we are.
  • The aim of art, the aim of a life can only be to increase the sum of freedom and responsibility to be found in every man and in the world. It cannot, under any circumstances, be to reduce or suppress that freedom, even temporarily…there is not a single true work of art that has not in the end added to the inner freedom of each person who has known and loved it.
  • The current motto for all of us can only be this: “without giving up anything on the plane of justice, yield nothing on the plane of freedom.”
  • Being aware of one’s freedom, and to the maximum, is living, and to the maximum.
  • More and more, when faced with the world of men, the only reaction is one of individualism. Man alone is an end unto himself.

There are many things Albert Camus wrote or did that I may have issues with. But it would be a shame to lose the inspiration of words such as these due to differences that do not negate their validity.

In a world where time and energy are scarce, choosing to read someone we have learned to consistently expect insight from makes a great deal of sense. It increases the chances that the time will be well spent. It expands our own insights and reminds us of how important some things are to life. That is why libertarians read a great deal from those who similarly value freedom. But while that may be our foundation, we cannot stop there. While holding on to our recognition of the importance of liberty, we can also learn from and be inspired by those who may be fellow travelers only in part.

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