Bryan Caplan  

Quietism and the Bubble

Another Must-Read... Sunk Cost in War...
If I prefer to live in a Bubble, why do I spend so much my time publicly promoting my own ideas?  A true Bubble Boy, you'd think, would give up on the world; to say, with The Misanthrope's Philinte:

And there's no greater folly, if you ask me,
Than trying to reform society.

My answer is that I enjoy sharing my ideas.  Not with everyone; if someone finds me boring or demonic, I leave them be.  But a world with seven billion people is packed with interesting, curious people.  I like talking with them, even when the communication is one-way.  In a more repressive society, admittedly, I'd have to watch my back.  That's probably why the great Epicurus advised his followers to "Live unknown."  But as matters stand, I'm comfortable speaking my mind.  Indeed, strange though it seems, I've managed to make a career out of sharing my ideas.  There's enough demand for what I'm selling to pay my Bubble's rent.

Don't I also want to radically change the world, not merely "enjoy myself"?  Sure.  But I don't want to change the world in the same way that I want to breathe air.  I can't survive without air.  But I can survive and even thrive if the world ignores my ideas.  Influence in the world beyond my Bubble does not measure the value of my life's work.  Popularity is a poor test of truth, and I know it.  I am content to do some good while doing well.

In any case, I am often shooting for a goal in between intellectual self-expression and policy influence: Building my counter-culture.  Changing a few thousand minds wouldn't noticeably change policy.  But it would noticeably increase the number of people who see the world my way.  The subtext of much of my work is recruitment and retention: Convincing people to mentally relocate to my extended Bubble, and providing a steady stream of reasons to call this Bubble "home."  If "immigrants" bring interesting new ideas or interesting new people with them, so much the better.

The Serenity Prayer asks for "the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference."  There's no better advice for a Bubble Boy.  I almost certainly can't decisively change the minds of millions.  But I can slightly nudge the world in a better direction, enrich the lives of thousands, and enjoy myself while I do it.  It's not ideal, but I still count myself an extremely lucky man.

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COMMENTS (10 to date)
Xerographica writes:

My standard is Deng Xiaoping. Wikipedia has a section on the prosecution he endured...Two Purges.

Another guiding principle is Milton Friedman...he very strongly emphasized the following..."If we can't persuade the public that it's desirable to do these things, then we have no right to impose them even if we had the power to do it."

Rothbard was the complete opposite. He hated the state so much that...if there was a button that would abolish the state in one fell swoop...then he would have pushed that button until his thumb blistered.

We have to be tolerant because humans are fallible and we are humans. We can't impose our ideas onto others but we can challenge their myths. We have an obligation to challenge myths.

With that in mind...let's start a Magna Carta movement! As Deng Xiaoping was fond of doesn't matter whether a cat is black or white...what matters is whether it catches mice. It shouldn't matter if an organization is public or private...what matters is whether it produces results. Why not allow 150 million taxpayers to use their individual taxes to indicate which public organizations produce results?

Joe Cushing writes:

I'm sure most of the readers of this blog fit in your bubble. It's nice to be with like minds.

KendallB writes:


ajb writes:

Since you have moved me farther away from libertarianism with your views, I count both of us as winners.

Pat writes:

From this post

"In a more repressive society, admittedly, I'd have to watch my back"

From a few days ago

"I find my society unacceptable. It is dreary, insipid, ugly, boring, wrong, and wicked"

You're not leaving yourself much room to describe a more repressive society than the one we live in.

daryl jensen writes:

Pat, I don't see the contradiction. Even though Bryan doesn't approve of society, he does admit that it could be worse.

Becky Hargrove writes:

What is unique about your bubble is the ability to live happily in knowledge. That is what more people would want, if they were not compelled to rebel against knowledge because they believe knowledge has nothing to offer them. They have been told knowledge is scarce and must be confined to bubbles which is not true. Knowledge can validate us all and give our lives meaning. I care not if 99 percent disagree with me, because I am convinced no one wants to live in a dreary, boring and lifeless world if they can find a way out of it. And no one should have to live in solitude, as so many knowledge lovers now do, just because it has yet to be turned into true wealth.

Costard writes:

Nevertheless a neutered relationship between yourself and society isn't likely to produce much. You say you are content to change few minds; is this because you doubt the good impact of your positions, or because you've begun from the assumption that you will be largely ignored? Counter-culture is a self-definition. You say we should accept the unchangeable, but you delineated your own boundaries when you made the curious (and with respect to your views, irrelevant) point that you have seceded from the hoi polloi.

I don't see anything unconventional about the ivory tower, or especially valuable about an intellectual colony in the wilderness. There are enough clubs and cults and enlightened cabals in the world; and probably they constitute the greater part of society. If your ideas are good, and popularity would make them effective, then what is your reason for isolating yourself from a larger audience?

Funny thing is, you could have defined your position relative to society just as easily by saying who you are, rather than what society is. By opening with sympathy and personal detail, rather than harsh judgment and generalities, you would have had a chance at appealing to people who instead jumped on you for elitism. You might even have had "mainstream appeal".

Faze writes:

Your positions have had a large effect on my thoughts about many public and private issues since I started following this blog. I also like your general tone of cheerful despair, which is not a bad model for the rest of us. I'd say your strategy is working.

Anonymous Mike writes:

My general impression after reading this post was of the seeming sterility of many libertarians. Now Bryan's position may be what one commenter called cheerful despair, but I fear it is nothing so noble.

If Bryan merely wished to plant his standard on a lonely hill and say his piece that would be one thing. However as Costard points out Bryan simply cannot avoid stating this position without also asserting a dual of position of separateness and superiority to society at large which one hand I find lacks any sense of dignity and grace and is.... childish in tone. The problem is that I seem to run into so many self-proclaimed libertarians, fascinating and wonderful people all, who seem to act the same way that I wonder if such behavior is part of the essence of being a libertarian.

The infuriating thing is that in terms of public discourse this is the time where a strong and persuasive libertarian viewpoint is needed more than ever. However it seems the general tone is to talk down to the world at large, deny that perhaps those who are hard of hearing of your ideas still are possessed of the divine spark, and then wonder why people won't accept its ideas. Perhaps libertarians are cursed, due to their style and tone, to be in terms of public impact a self-limiting proposition.

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