Kearneysville, WV. Last week my family enjoyed our annual trek to the North Carolina coast. My wife’s family has been doing this since she was a girl and the tradition continues. Five families rent one house—it’s a bit crowded, but also very lively and affordable. We’ve been renting the same house for fifteen years. The kids, of course, look forward to this yearly sojourn to the shore and so do the adults. It’s a grand time for all.
This year, on Sunday, we learned that two days earlier, and just down the beach, a thirteen-year old girl had been standing in the swallows–three or four feet of water–along with a friend and her parents. She felt a tug on her foot and then a sharp pain. She pulled her foot out of the water only to see deep gashes, shredded flesh, and blood everywhere. She was rushed to the hospital where it took sixty stitches to close the wounds. The bite marks indicated a shark around six feet in length. Some suggested that the wound appeared like the work of the very aggressive bull shark.
Not surprisingly, the news put something of a damper on our beach festivities. That critter was still out there and he’d tasted human flesh! But at the same time, we’ve always known there were sharks about. Just last year, some guy caught a six-footer off the pier. We’ve frequently seen schools of small fish frantically jumping out of the water, indicating that something much bigger was feeding from below.
So, did we spend the rest of the week building sand castles and staring wistfully at the rollers crashing into the shore? Of course not. After the obvious pause that news of the attack brought, we headed back to the water. Every year the kids spend hours each day swimming and riding the waves, and this year was no different. We had a blast, and apparently the shark didn’t like the taste of humans after all.
Anyone who swims in the ocean or camps in grizzly country or drives down the interstate, for that matter, understands that life is a risky proposition. A prudent person takes certain precautions–we wear seatbelts when we drive and don’t sleep with bacon grease on our hands when bears are about. If there had been multiple shark attacks at our beach, I’m sure we would have adjusted our activities accordingly.
Yet, the fact that life is inherently risky doesn’t sit well with many today. We want comfortable lives where the upside is unlimited and the downside is non-existent. During the dark days of the Depression, FDR promised Americans “freedom from fear” and “freedom from want.” Such promises certainly sound grand and they are great for attracting votes, but they are bald-faced lies. No one can legitimately make such promises, but the modern nation-state, with its expansive scope and power creates the illusion that it can actually deliver.
Today many Americans seem smitten with the notion that Washington holds the answer to the many dangers circling in the water: the oil spill in the Gulf, the financial melt-down, climate change, unemployment, health care, retirement uncertainties, food safety, product safety, the list goes on and on. Ironically, many of these problems have been caused by, or at least exacerbated by, the very entity we implore to fix them. Nevertheless, attempting to make the world safe requires a tremendous concentration of power. So with our habitual gaze fixed on Washington–especially in the person of the President–we tacitly empower the state to expand.
Of course, states can and should play a certain role in securing its citizens. Most obviously, the state is charged with protecting against foreign threats. It should also protect its citizens against criminals who would seek to deprive others of life, liberty, and property. Such crucial, though relatively modest tasks, leaves plenty of work for citizens, for neighborhoods, for voluntary associations. These are the proper training ground for freedom.
Nevertheless, the modern bureaucratic state, aided by the wonders of technological sophistication, continually offers up its services. It promises to do the hard work so we can merely enjoy ourselves. And though in moments of sanity we know that the state simply cannot do what it promises, the allure lingers and the state continues to present itself as the mitigator of all risk.
Yet, a world without risk, if it could be achieved, would be a world without freedom. In pursuing the goal of a risk-free world, the state expands and expands yet more. Freedom necessarily constricts; nevertheless, we end up being bitten by sharks, poisoned by tainted meat, and in the end we find, much to our chagrin, that we die. So far the state has not promised to fix that inconvenient truth.
Clearly, we must come to terms with risk, with suffering, with pain, and ultimately with death. Only a society that does so can resist the siren call of state-induced security and thereby preserve any vestiges of freedom. But how, concretely, can this be done? Let me offer three suggestions. First, we must simply reacquaint ourselves with the idea of limits. There are natural limits against which we should not push. Suffering is part of life. Loss and pain are unavoidable. Ultimately, we must come to recognize that unlimited power concentrated in the hands of the state (or any other entity for that matter) is antithetical to freedom.
Second, we must remind ourselves of the fragility, and therefore the preciousness, of our lives. Each moment is a gift to be treasured. The smile of a child, the song of a lark, the fiery sky at sunset are all moments of grace to be savored and for which we should be grateful. Yes, there are dangers and uncertainties on every hand, but there are good things as well. In the end, we can only enjoy the one if we accept the reality of the other. Finally, we should be mindful that the state readily seeks to fill vacuums in our social and cultural lives. If neighbors and communities don’t work together to meet the needs of their members, the state will gladly move in. Cultivating the neighborly arts is one way of practicing the art of freedom.
History, as well as our common experience, shows us that the world is a dangerous place. There are always sharks in the water. But there is no greater danger than the person who tells us that continually expanding the power and scope of the state can make the world safe. As we continue to lurch toward statism, that’s a lesson we do well to learn.