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.

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  1. Considering you’re willing to share a house with four other families (in-laws or strangers?)–more than once, too–I would guess you’re not generally averse to suffering, so what’s a little bite on the leg from a shark trying out new foods? My mother-in-law has many times suggested we rent a cabin from the YMCA up in northern Minnesota and share it for a week, and while I haven’t actually said, “Only if I can bring a tent for myself” I’ve managed to get the idea across that I’m not excited about the idea and would rather go camping some time with just my husband and my kids. We’ve had a bear go through our back yard, but it doesn’t make us want to move closer to the metro area (where they live–the in-laws, I mean).

  2. Maybe also once bitten, twice shy. The problems seem too big and bewildering, and the effect of what we do on our own too small. Not in denial of the dangers, simply afraid to confront them on our own.

    Not the fear of the incompetent so much as the dependent. Corporations and Governments, give us our bread, protect us from harm.

  3. Mark thanks for the essay, well done. Although some here will guffaw at the notion, your description of the problem and proposed solution reminded me of Buddhist thought: The Four Noble Truths can be summarized as the realization that life is suffering, and that craving is the source of suffering, and the realization that there is a path to the end of suffering.

    Your solution parallels the Middle Way, which is very much about limits and place, leading to liberty. More dogmatically, your essay the illustrates the following elements of the Eightfold Noble Path: Right View; Right Intention; Right Action; Right Mindfulness; leading to seeing things as they are (Right Knowledge), and Right Liberty

    I am not a Buddhist, nor I’m not trying to make too big a point here. Your essay stands well on its own arguments, but I am often taken aback by negative comments on the FPR that are skeptical of any view not derived from, or exclusive to, Christian thought. Many other traditions seek the same worldly goals, and exclusive of dogma and ritual, have the same means.

    • Thanks Rex. You are right that truth is found in a variety of places. Your comments reminded me of a brief piece I published last year. E. F. Schumacher’s book “Small is Beautiful” includes a chapter titled “Buddhist Economics.” See the attached video for Schumacher’s discussion.

  4. Not to be Buddhist about it, I seem to recall cutting down my Bo Tree and throwing it in the old Soot Vermont Castings Stove but this piece, for some reason, made me a bit wistful, like I was reading something from the early days.

  5. While I agree with many of the points made in the article, I nonetheless think that any transformation is going to require more than just telling the feds to take a hike. Ultimately, a total reexamination of the way we live is necessary.

    Sticking with the NC coast for a minute to illustrate my point. My family has vacationed on Hatteras Island for years. In fact, we’ve been going for so long that we have gotten to know some of the locals. One such local we know is a middle aged woman, who along with her sister, runs a small seafood place. My wife and I are particulary fond of the fish tacos and iced tea this place serves so we make it a point to eat there at least once every year.

    Two years ago we went in for our tacos and tea, and because it was a slow evening, the owner came out and talked with us while we ate. She told us that she didn’t know how much longer she was going to stick with it because the traffic and pollution had gotten so bad during the summer that it outweighed any increases she saw in her business. As she continued to talk, she told us that she was convinced most of the land owners on Hatteras were more than willing to see the island destroyed if it meant they could increase the rental or selling prices of their properties.

    Here are but a few examples of what our friend was talking about. First, the local landowners have asked for and implemented zoning restrictions that keep increasing the minimum structure size so that now any house built is probably going to be way north of 3,000 sqft. This increase, along with the fact that everyone now expects their rental house to come equiped with full size pool, means the public service department is having trouble making enough fresh water to meet demand. Additionally, because the houses have gotten so big, and because almost all of them have septic systems for waste disposal. The sand that the island is made of is all but saturated with human waste. Our friend told us there were actually places where you could see waste bubbling up during the peak summer months.

    Second, she mentioned what the increase in beach traffic was doing to the shoreline. Apparently, it’s no longer just fishermen and locals who drive on the beaches. No, now everyone who wants to sunbathe or swim has to drive their SUV onto the beach. This increased traffic is causing erosion problems, and it leads to more garbage on the beach and in the ocean. Furthermore, the traffic is causing problems for the wildlife. Yet, according to our friend, the locals are up in arms about a proposal by the park service to close parts of the beach to motor vehicles during certain parts of the year. Again, they think this will decrease what they can charge for their properties.

    I suppose ultimately my point is this: designing a system of governance wherein the power to govern is returned to local bodies, which I’m all for, doesn’t necessarilly mean that individuals are going to be any better at recognizing or excepting limits. For this, we need new priorities along the lines of the ones Mr. Mitchell mentions in the later part of his article.

  6. I very much appreciate your article, Mark. At the time the first big government bail-out (at least in recent memory) was put in place, I was still involved in a small rental business. I had managed to pay my mortgage and taxes, and in spite of the housing crash, turn a small profit. I found the demand rising up within me, to have the freedom to fail. I knew intuitively, that only if I could fail, could I really succeed.

    A question, though, haunts me. It is a Biblical question, but one to which I don’t have an adequate answer–along the lines of your essay. Robert is, in essence, asking it in his comment. Who is my neighbor? I’m not trying to be cute. I asked the question about a year ago in regard to another essay. I don’t remember which one. I pointed out that the papermill in my town used to produce a substance that is considered the most deadly poison known to man–PCB. It was to the advantage of me and my neighbors for the mill to continue using chorine to bleach the pulp, thus producing PCB. Let Lynchburg, Richmond, Virginia Beach and the whole Oystering industry downstream worry about their own neighborhoods. In the discussion, John Willson asked whether the Feds had cleaned up the Jackson River. I don’t think I answered, but the answer is, “No, they didn’t, but they did make the papermill do so, which made us less competitive with foreign mills, etc. which was not good for my immediate neighbors. I am convinced that switching to an osigenated bleaching system and eliminating the PCBs was the right thing to do. Had there not been a force bigger than our community, however, that forced us to do so, I figure we would still be dumping PCBs in the Jackson River. All no doubt a vast over-simplification, but still . . .
    There are an abundance of activities that you and I are involved in which affect folk well beyond our neighborhood. Your recent trip to the beach was one.

    I agree that government is frequently not the answer. It’s encroachment into areas formerly dominated by family and community is often/mostly very bad.

    The same fallen condition in the world–Romans 8–that brings the pain and death your article speaks of, also brings depravity to the human heart. Communities, do not come from Norman Rockwell paintings, they are collections of people from Genesis 3&4.

    The appeal to, and emphasis on localism on this site is a worthy endeavor, but in today’s world of global relationships don’t we need more than just an appeal to “Say no globalism and big-government”? Especially when I just drove to work in a Japanese car, powered middle-eastern oil, and I’m working with a computer made in China to communicate over a medium invented by a politician from Tennesee.

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