Against Apology Perfectionism

After last week’s post on apologies, a few readers sent me links on the psychology of effective apologies.  Maximally effective apologies include the following elements:

  • Expression of regret
  • Explanation of what went wrong
  • Acknowledgment of responsibility
  • Declaration of repentance
  • Offer of repair
  • Request for forgiveness

A similar piece elaborates:

Taking responsibility means acknowledging mistakes you made that hurt the other person, and it’s one of the most important and neglected ingredients of most apologies, especially those in the media.

Saying something vague like, “I’m sorry if you were offended by something I said,” implies that the hurt feelings were a random reaction on the part of the other person. Saying, “When I said [the hurtful thing], I wasn’t thinking. I realize I hurt your feelings, and I’m sorry,” acknowledges that you know what it was you said that hurt the other person, and you take responsibility for it.

Overall, this seems like plausible advice.  Ideal apologies will indeed have all six elements.  The harsh reality, though, is that ideal apologies often require the superpower of telepathy.  Why?  Because the person who wants to apologize doesn’t understand why the other person is upset, and the person who wants an apology refuses to explain themselves.  So unless the would-be apologizer can read minds, “sorry for whatever I did” is the best he can do.

The bigger question, though is: How will people actually use this research?  Will they learn to make better apologies?  Or simply to expect better apologies? I suspect that the latter effect will far exceed the former.  Ironically, the net result of this research is probably to exacerbate conflict rather than defuse it.

As far as I can recall, I have never received an ideal apology – or anything close to it.  In fact, I doubt I’ve received a dozen halfway decent apologies in my entire life.  If I held this dearth against people, I wouldn’t have a friend left in the world.  Instead of expecting apologies from others, I generally make excuses on their behalf.

My motives are partly strategic and partly sincere.

Strategically speaking, I know that demanding good apologies probably won’t work.  People are stubborn and self-righteous.  Unless I bite my tongue and appease them, I will be very lonely.  You could object, “With friends like that, who needs enemies?”  But if a friend unapologetically hurts my feelings five days a year, but makes me happy the other 360 days, I count myself lucky.

Sincerely speaking, I know that lively social interaction is an inherently risky activity.  Boring, superficial conversations are safe: “Nice weather we’re having?” “Yes, quite.”  As soon as you stray from that time-worn path, you might accidentally say the wrong thing.  So if someone hurts your feelings as a result, the wise reaction is normally, “It’s all part of the game, no big deal.”

Wouldn’t I like to receive an apology every now and then?  Sure.  Wouldn’t I prefer apologies that contain an expression of regret, explanation of what went wrong, acknowledgment of responsibility, declaration of repentance, offer of repair, and request for forgiveness?  Sure again.  But in my book, even a “Sorry I hurt your feelings” with a sincere tone is amazing is above the bar.  I’ll take it.  So should you.

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Putting Entrepreneurship on the Menu

Even before the arrival of COVID-19, the restaurant industry was being transformed by a variety of forces, in particular the competition for home delivery among UberEats, GrubHub, DoorDash and others. In addition, pop-ups, test kitchens, and food trucks offered unique dining opportunities at a very small scale and for short periods of time. These acts of entrepreneurship were possible because the food service industry is still largely characterized by “permissionless innovation.” The regulatory costs of entry are low, and physical and human capital are fairly mobile, all of which allows people to try out ideas and see what sticks. As COVID-19 has created new challenges for restaurants, even the innovators have to keep innovating to meet the new demands of consumers, not to mention complying with local public health regulations. Often the most valuable sorts of entrepreneurial innovations are not ones that make big headlines but ones that instead make improvements in existing products and services to better meet the needs of consumers.

Two examples of this sort of entrepreneurial innovation are taking place here in Fishers, Indiana. Although both of these innovations pre-date COVID-19, one is well-poised to take advantage of the changes the pandemic has brought, and the other has demonstrated the kind of flexibility that is often necessary for effective entrepreneurial responses to exogenous shocks like a pandemic.

The first example is a company called ClusterTruck. Based in Indianapolis, they recently opened a second kitchen here in Fishers. They are a nice example of innovating on an innovation. One of the problems with food delivery services like GrubHub is that the drivers are not employees of the restaurants, and the restaurants are dependent on the schedules of the drivers when they promise a delivery time. We’ve all had the experience of our order coming much later, or even earlier, than expected, or having food that was no longer hot. The creators of ClusterTruck were, as Israel Kirzner puts it, “alert” to the opportunity to improve that model. One of the ways they did that was by creating a restaurant that is delivery and pick-up only.

ClusterTruck has integrated the food preparation and the delivery process in two ways. First, the drivers all work for them. But they also won’t start preparing your food until they have one of the drivers committed for that delivery. This prevents food from sitting and waiting for a driver to pick up. And without seating, their whole kitchen is geared to competing and preparing delivery orders. It’s not a sideline. It’s what they do. Their app also has several nice innovations. One of those is the ability to order ahead for delivery at a specified time. With in-house drivers, Clustertruck can meet a pretty tight window that way. The other nice innovation is the ability to share a link to your order that allows other people to piggy-back on the same order but pay with their own account. So offices ordering lunch don’t have to worry about Venmo or other ways of settling up. Everyone can order and pay for their own meal but have it delivered together. And to be able to satisfy groups and families this way, their menu spans a variety of cuisines, from a few Asian and Mexican dishes to pub food and pizza.

This full integration from preparation to delivery, along with ordering ahead and the ability to easily order in groups, puts them a step ahead of the other platform-based delivery services. Nonetheless, like every other restaurant, they’ll have to provide good eats if they are going to expand the way they have planned. As the current big wave of COVID-19 will enhance the demand for home delivery of prepared food, their entrepreneurial innovations seem well-positioned to succeed.

The second example of innovation is illustrative of the flexibility that good entrepreneurship demands. COVID-19 has been devastating for local restaurants, as they operate on such thin margins that the loss of business over the last several months has been too much for them to continue. But how to keep a great menu alive in a different form that can work in the world of COVID? One answer comes from the world of test kitchens. This model, which predates the pandemic, is one in which space is created for a small number of counter-service restaurants to share, while rotating the particular cuisines that occupy the various slots. A particular idea might only be there for a few months while the owners try to discover if their model is workable, hence the “test kitchen” concept. This model allows them to share some overhead costs and work out recipes without having to worry about table service or other elements of a full-service restaurant. We have a test kitchen like this located inside a local brewery, which itself is a nice innovation given the mutual benefits involved.

One of the kitchens at our Fishers Test Kitchen is an Asian street food place called Lil Dumplings. It was opened by the chef from Rook, a very well-regarded Indianapolis restaurant, and served mostly dumplings. The full service Rook was a casualty of COVID, however, going out of business earlier this fall. But that loss also presented an entrepreneurial opportunity. The former chef recently switched the menu at his Test Kitchen location over to ramen and steamed buns, and is serving several items very similar to customer favorites from Rook. The test kitchen model gives entrepreneurs who are alert to changes elsewhere in the market the flexibility they need to quickly switch over a menu and meet that new demand. It also provides a cheap way of discovering whether Rook’s dishes are still valued by its former customers. (I can report that they most definitely are!) And doing it with counter service, carry-out, and delivery options makes the whole thing work in a pandemic.

Too often we think about entrepreneurial innovations as being big, grand things like the invention of the automobile or airplane. In fact, most of what good entrepreneurs do is to take existing products and services and find ways to improve them around the edges. Inventing the cell phone is great, but adding a camera on to it gives it an amazing new range of possibilities. Reorganizing the way in which a product or service is provided, as ClusterTruck has done, is one way to innovate, and taking advantage of a flexible production structure to recover some value from a failed business is another. Good entrepreneurs are people who are alert to these kinds of opportunities and take advantage of them to make consumers better off. Creating environments that allow for permissionless innovation of this sort is the best way for policymakers to attract that entrepreneurial energy and thereby improve their communities.

 

 

For more on competition and entrepreneurship, see Steve Horwitz’s Liberty Classic on Israel Kirzner’s classic work Competition and Entrepreneurship, new this month at Econlib.

 


*Steven Horwitz is the Distinguished Professor of Free Enterprise and Director of the Institute for the Study of Political Economy in the Department of Economics in the Miller College of Business at Ball State University in Muncie, IN. He is also an Affiliated Senior Scholar at the Mercatus Center in Arlington, VA, a Senior Fellow at the Fraser Institute of Canada, and the economics editor at the Cato Institute’s libertarianism.org. He is the author of four books, including most recently Austrian Economics: An Introduction. He is also the 2020 recipient of the Julian L. Simon Memorial Award from the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

For more articles by Steven Horwitz, see the Archive.

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Happy birthday, LvB!

250 years ago today Ludwig van Beethoven was born. Beethoven’s greatness is quite too obvious to comment on it. The great composer had liberal sentiments; he had great hope in the French Revolution and in Bonaparte as a liberator, yet he was disappointed by the Napoleon crowning himself and came to resent him. Jim Powell had an amusing profile of Beethoven for the liberty-minded, here.

Sometimes people remark that Beethoven “wrote only one opera” and could not really play with the human voice as well as he did with music. True, Beethoven wrote only one opera, but it is “Fidelio”. “Fidelio” is first and foremost about marital love, something Beethoven did not enjoy himself. It is the story of the absolute commitment of a wife, Leonore (hence the title of the first version), a noblewoman of Seville who disguises herself as a boy to find her husband, Florestan, a political prisoner. This sort of story, set in a prison, was actually not uncommon during the French Revolution. Jailing opponents happened during the ancien regime and likewise in revolutionary times. Fidelio adapts “Léonore ou l’amour conjugal”, a work by Jean-Nicolas Bouilly, who worked as a prosecutor in the city of Tours during the Reign of Terror.

Leonore/Fidelio wasn’t the luckiest, commercially speaking, of Beethoven’s works. It premiered right after the French army occupied Vienna. The local aristocracy had fled the Austrian capital and the mainly French audience was not particularly receptive to the story. Beethoven kept writing and rewriting it, so we have four magnificent overtures. But to many, the highlight is the chorus of the prisoners. Fidelio/Leonore convinces the jailer, Rocco, to allow the other prisoners a few moments of fresh air in the courtyard. The chorus movingly conveys the emotion brought up by this fleeting glimpse of freedom.

It is hardly original to comment that 2020 was a sad year for most of us. For music fans, it was also sad that we could not enjoy the many beautiful concerts that the Beethoven anniversary had in store for us. To remember Beethoven, my Institute has published (alas, only in Italian) a short piece written in 1953 by Epicarmo Corbino, an Italian liberal economist (and, briefly, Finance Minister after WWII) who fancied writing something on Beethoven. It is a short essay that proves that a social scientist may have some thoughts on music, too. We have also put together a playlist of Beethoven pieces, highlihgting those in which you can better sense his love and passion for liberty. It is accessible here.

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Spencer and Prejudice

Herbert Spencer’s “From Freedom to Bondage” famously claims that “[T]he more things improve the louder become the exclamations about their badness.”  And he offered a bunch of great examples.  Inspired by Spencer’s insight, I recently turned to Google Ngram to look at long-run trends for six oft-named expressions of prejudice.

 

 

 

 

Notice: Four out of six evils  – racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia – are now vastly more discussed that they were in early decades.  As Spencer would have predicted, it’s clear that all four used to be vastly worse.  When they were ubiquitous, people took them for granted.  Earlier generations clearly wrote virtually nothing in defense of prejudice.  Instead, earlier generations barely talked about it at all.

How would Spencer explain the result for “imperialism”?  Well, the Soviet Union aside, imperialism all but disappeared in the mid-70s, when the Portuguese finally abandoned their overseas possessions.  The result: While discussion of “imperialism” steeply fell, its been stuck at the level of the 1950s for the last thirty years.

What about “xenophobia”?  Objectively speaking, this form of prejudice massively outweighs all the others combined.  As I’ve said before, immigration restrictions make Jim Crow laws look mild by comparison.  Current immigration laws continue to deprive billions of their basic rights to live and work where they like.  Yet even today, we barely discuss the xenophobic attitudes that make immigration restrictions possible.  True, there has been a mild upward trend since 1990, but the ratio of words to harm remains miniscule.

I predict that a great conversation about xenophobia will come.  Judging by past trends, however, that conversation is going to happen a few decades after open borders arrives.

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Great Line from T.S. Eliot

And no, I won’t put it all in non-capitalized letters.

Eliot could not have found a kinder, or more effective, way of putting me at ease. As we sat down, he said, “Tell me, as one editor to another, do you have much author trouble?” I could not help laughing, he laughed in return–he had a booming laugh–and that was the beginning of our friendship. His most memorable remark of the day occurred when I asked him if he agreed with the definition that most editors are failed writers, and he replied: “Perhaps, but so are most writers.”

Timothy Taylor, quoting editor Robert Giroux, “Are Editors Just Failed Writers?Conversable Economist, November 20, 2020.

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Life, Liberty, and M*A*S*H: Other Civil Liberties

This fall, LIFE magazine has published a special issue commemorating the 50th anniversary of the movie M*A*S*H. Despite the hook, the issue focuses on the ensuing TV series, which ran from 1972 to 1983. Though the show has often been characterized as being politically left-wing, it actually is heavily classically liberal, celebrating the individual, civil liberties, and the market, and harshly criticizing anti-individualism, government compulsion, and government decision-making. In a series of essays, I examine the classical liberalism of M*A*S*H. This is the 6th and final part. Part 1 is here. Part 2 is here. Part 3 is here. Part 4 is here. Part 5 is here.

 

M*A*S*H’s respect for civil liberties goes beyond people’s right to property and exchange. Freedom of speech and the press are lionized for protecting against government abuse (“For the Good of the Outfit,” “Are You Now, Margaret,” “Tell It to the Marines” [s. 9]); censorship is condemned and lampooned (“For the Good of the Outfit,” “The Moon Is Not Blue” [s. 11]); and religious freedom is revered (“Ping Pong” [s. 5], “A Holy Mess” [s. 10]).

Throughout the show’s run, bigotry is condemned. Racism is ridiculed (“L.I.P.” [s. 2],” “The General Flipped at Dawn,” “Yessir, That’s Our Baby,” “Bottle Fatigue” [s. 8], “The Tooth Shall Set You Free” [ s. 10]) and immigration is championed (“L.I.P.,” “Tell It to the Marines”). In “Dear Dad … Three” (s. 2), a wounded white soldier, Sgt. Condon (Mills Watson), warns the doctors to make sure he gets the “right color” blood. Hawkeye and Trapper decide to teach him a lesson, sneaking into the recovery room at night to dab the sleeping soldier’s skin with tincture of iodine. Worried that his darkening complexion indicates he has indeed been given the wrong blood, Condon confronts the doctors:

CONDON

What are you guys tryin’ to do to me? Did you give me the wrong color blood?

TRAPPER

All blood is the same.

HAWKEYE

You ever hear of Dr. Charles Drew?

CONDON

Who’s that?

HAWKEYE

Dr. Drew invented the process of separating blood so it can be stored.

TRAPPER

Plasma.

HAWKEYE

He died last April in a car accident.

TRAPPER

He bled to death. The hospital wouldn’t let him in.

HAWKEYE

It was for whites only.

TRAPPER

See ya, fella.

 

At the end of the episode, a wiser Condon thanks the surgeons “for giving me a lot to think about” and respectfully salutes nurse Ginger Bayliss (Odessa Cleveland), an African-American.

Sexism and sexual harassment are likewise treated with derision (“What’s Up, Doc?” “Hot Lips Is Back in Town” [s. 7], “Nurse Doctor” [s. 8]). In “Inga” (s. 7), Hawkeye —a notorious womanizer in the series’ early seasons — is agog over a visiting woman surgeon (Mariette Hartley) — until she shows him up in the operating room. Later, Margaret takes him to task for having a limited view of women:

MARGARET

You think a woman is dead until she lives for you. Well, let me tell you something, Benjamin Franklin: We actually survive without you.

We live, we breathe, we dream, we do our work, we earn our pay. Sometimes we even have our little failures, and then we pull ourselves together, all without benefit of your fabulous electric lips!

And let me tell you something else, buster! I can walk into that kitchen any time I want and replace those fabulous lips of yours with a soggy piece of liver!

M*A*S*H also respects the rights of homosexuals (“George,” s. 2) and the disabled (“Dear Uncle Abdul” [s. 8], “Run for the Money” [s. 11]). In “Morale Victory” (s. 8), Charles — a lover of chamber music — tries to help an injured soldier, David Sheridan (James Stephens), accept a permanent loss of dexterity in one hand even though Sheridan is a concert pianist. Charles introduces him to compositions written for one hand, explaining that the injury does not diminish who he is or his talent (and illustrates comparative advantage):

CHARLES

Your hand may be stilled, but your gift cannot be silenced if you refuse to let it be.

SHERIDAN

Gift? You keep talking about this damn gift.

I had a gift, and I exchanged it for some mortar fragments, remember?

CHARLES

Wrong. Because the gift does not lie in your hands.

I have hands, David. Hands that can make a scalpel sing.

More than anything in my life, I wanted to play, but I do not have the gift.

I can play the notes, but I cannot make the music.

You’ve performed Liszt, Rachmaninoff, Chopin.

Even if you never do so again, you’ve already known a joy that I will never know as long as I live.

Because the true gift is in your head, and in your heart, and in your soul.

Now, you can shut it off forever, or you can find new ways to share your gift with the world — through the baton, the classroom, the pen.

As to these works, they’re for you, because you and the piano will always be as one.

 

Classical liberals respect civil liberties because they appreciate the value — and even marvel at the wonder — of the individual. (In contrast, the non–classical liberal Frank Burns believes that “individuality’s fine, as long as we all do it together” [“George”].) This wonder is expressed in “Hawkeye” (s. 4), in which Hawkeye suffers a concussion while away from the unit and seeks help from a Korean family. Despite the language barrier, he keeps talking to stay awake, often falling into philosophizing:

HAWKEYE

Don’t you sometimes wonder about babies? I mean, how do they know what to do in there? They start out looking like little hairless mice, and they wind up looking like us.

How’s it all work?

I’ve held a beating heart in my hand. I’ve poked into kidneys and crocheted them together again. I’ve pushed air into collapsed lungs like beat-up old pump organs. I’ve squeezed and probed and prodded my way through hundreds of miles of gut and goo, and I don’t know what makes us live.

I mean, what keeps us in motion? What keeps the heart beating without anybody rewinding it? Why do the cells reproduce and re-re-reproduce with such gay abandon?

Did you ever see Ann Corio or Margie Hart? Strippers. … I remember Polly O’Day. She worked with a parrot. He didn’t help her strip or anything; while she got undressed, he stood on the side and talked dirty. It was an exciting act. What a body. She was built great, too.

But what I don’t understand is how she got that way, any more than how we did.

Look at your hand. It’s one of the most incredible instruments in the universe. Of all the bones in the body, one fourth are in the hand.

Forget the hand; look at your thumb, that wondrous mechanism that separates us from the other animals. The world-famous opposable thumb, that amazing device that has transported more students to college than the Boston Post Road. Ideal for sucking, especially as a baby. And lauded in song and story as the perfect instrument for pulling out a plum. Or, in the case of the Caesars, for holding it down for the gladiator to die, or holding it up, which means, “See you later at the orgy.”

My friends, for getting up and down the pike, in your pie, in your eye, I give you the thumb.

Have you any idea, Farmer Brown, of the incredible complexity of this piece of human apparatus?

You have no idea of the balletic interplay of parts that make up the human thumb. The flexor ossis metacarpi pollicis flexes the metacarpal bone. That is, draws it inward over the palm, thus producing the movement of opposition — and the Boy Scout salute.

Because of this magical engineering, we can do this. [Grasping a utensil.] And this. [Grasping a cup.] And this. [Making a fist.]

But our greatest triumph comes not from flexing the metacarpal bone and making a fist, which always seems to be thirsting to be clenched. No, no, no, no, no.

Our greatest moment is when we open our hand: cradling a glass of wine, cupping a loved one’s chin. And the best, the most expert of all, keeping all the objects of our life in the air at the same time. [Picking up three pieces of fruit.]

My friends, for your amusement and bemusement, I give you the human person. [Begins juggling the fruit.] Thumb and fingers flexing madly, straining to keep aloft the leaden realities of life: ignorance, death, and madness. Thus, we create for ourselves the illusion that we have power, that we are in control, that we are loved.

 

Weary Determination

Sadly, M*A*S*H seems out of step with today’s politics. In the America of the 1970s and ’80s and on through the end of the century, both the Democratic and Republican parties were liberal in the classical sense, believing in the value of the individual, the importance of civil liberties, and the benefits of the market. The parties did differ — vigorously — on where to draw certain lines: how big should the welfare state be and what should be required of beneficiaries, how muscular should foreign policy be, what tax rates should be. But those differences fit within a classical liberal philosophy. It’s no wonder that M*A*S*H found plenty of fans on both sides of that era’s red–blue divide.

Today, the show might not find a similar audience. Both ends of the American political spectrum have embraced illiberalism, demanding that speech and the press be constrained, denigrating religious differences, reanimating old bigotries, obstructing immigration, and clamping down on markets and private exchange.

For classical liberals, today’s politics are disturbing and exhausting. We feel a bit like the members of the 4077, who were tired of war, troubled by the horrors they witnessed, and desired the peaceful lives they led before Korea. But they rallied when they needed to. When the choppers and ambulances arrived laden with casualties, the 4077 determinedly carried out their medical duties. And when morale sagged, they found ways to boost it, often with a gag at the expense of some hypocrite, fool, or sadist who sorely deserved it.

And so, maybe classical liberals in the 21st century can rally in the face of today’s grim times — and at the expense of illiberals who deserve it. And, concerning this so-far-illiberal century, maybe we can be reassured by Colonel Potter’s words to an orphan boy in “Old Soldiers”: “You’re off to a kind of a rough start, but I bet you’ve got some glorious times ahead of you.”

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Wayne Rogers: Much More than M*A*S*H

I was very pleased to see Thomas Firey’s thoughtful series on the classical liberal currents in what was, arguably, the greatest television comedy ever, M*A*S*H.  The two original stars of the show were Alan Alda and the late Wayne Rogers.  What is lesser known of the latter, Wayne attended many Liberty Fund conferences between 2003 And 2015.  I had the privilege of knowing him for a number of years during his long and productive relationship with Liberty Fund.

By CBS Television – Public Domain

 

Wayne first became acquainted with Liberty Fund through a personal relationship with a member of the Liberty Fund Board of Directors. Wayne began to attend our events, and he grew to love Liberty Fund.  I still vividly remember watching Wayne on his Fox Business show “Cashing In” wearing a Liberty Fund tie early on Saturday mornings.  I first met Wayne at a conference in 2006 on biology and the origins of virtue (directed by a long time friend of EconLib, the ever humble Mike Munger).  Wayne and I hit it off immediately and over the years I had the opportunity to work with him twice as he directed Liberty Fund conferences.

 

Wayne’s involvement was not simply because of his fame as a celebrity.  He was a graduate of Princeton and was sharp as a whip.  Sure he could tell stories about his days on M*A*S*H or hanging out with Cher, but he was a voracious reader, and a tenacious advocate for positions he believed him.  Woe be the person who disagreed with him on Glass-Stegall.  Anyone who thought he was just some Hollywood figure quickly learned that Wayne was an intellectual of the first order who was prepared to push you if you couldn’t defend your position or the text didn’t support your views.

 

For a while, people used to joke that Wayne Rogers must have financially regretted leaving the cast of M*A*S*H after just two seasons because of a contract dispute.  But trust me, Wayne got the last laugh.  At the root of his departure was what he described as his attraction to puzzles, most of them involving how to make money in a wide range of businesses and endeavors.  As I recall, the first deal that Wayne told me he was involved with was river barges, and because Wayne could tell a story, he made a business story about river barges seem like a pirate’s adventure along the Mississippi.

 

He went onto to be involved in a multitude of other businesses including wine making, banks, investments for some of his acting friends, such as Peter Falk, and perhaps most famously he was co-owner of a little bridal shop in New York called Kleinfeld. You may have heard of it because Wayne produced one of the most popular reality shows ever based at the shop called “Say Yes to the Dress” as just one of the many businesses he was involved with. In short, Wayne did just fine.

 

I’ll always remember Wayne for his energy and drive, his generosity with this time, the passion with which he lived his life, and his firm and unyielding commitment to the principles of liberty.  He loved playing what he called his “one string banjo” – his tendency to emphasize a point again and again until he convinced you of his position.  He was one of a kind, and as part of a one of a kind show, Wayne fit right in at the 4077th.  And he would have loved Tom’s discussion of the show’s classical liberal themes.

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Jonathan Rauch Has a GREAT Answer

What’s the appeal to people? Obviously I agree with you when you talk about a liberal society being a good one. The idea of intellectual or ideological pluralism, I’m all in. But people who are saying, “That’s a false front for a system that is rigged against trans people, against black people, and against other types of racial, ethnic, ideological, or sexual minorities”—how do you engage them when they are not interested necessarily in hearing what you have to say?

How do you engage with them? The single most common question I get when I talk about free speech and open inquiry on college campuses comes from a student—usually it will be a freshman, sometimes it’s a sophomore—who says, “What do I say, Mr. Rauch, when I try to speak up in a conversation and I’m told, ‘Check your privilege. You can’t say that.’ What do I do when I’m disqualified from the conversation because I don’t have the minority perspective?”

I used to try to say all kinds of things that they could say: “Try this. Try that.” That wasn’t a good answer. Then I began telling them, “Well, you figure it out. You know how to talk to your generation. I don’t.” That wasn’t a good answer.

The answer that I finally settled on—though the first two were also partly true—was: “It doesn’t matter all that much what you say to them, because they’re not listening. That’s what they’re telling you. They’re not listening. What matters is that you not shut up. They do not have the power to silence you if you do not allow yourself to be silenced. Insist on your right to continue the conversation to say what you want to say. Don’t slink away. You won’t necessarily persuade those people, but, as we found in the gay marriage debate, your real target is that third person on the periphery of the circle of the conversation who is seeing one person acting rationally and reasonably and other people acting irrationally and unreasonably. You’re probably winning the heart and mind of that third person, so don’t shut up.

 

This is from “How To Tell If You’re Being Cancelled,” Reason, December 20, an excellent Nick Gillespie interview with Jonathan Rauch. Rauch is the author of Kindly Inquisitors.

The whole interview is great. I focused on this because I so like the spirit and substance of the last paragraph of his answer.

Lately, I’ve been giving moral support to people who speak up against the cancel culture and/0r against people who target others because of their skin color.

The latest example is Jodi Shaw, who works at Smith College. When I watched her video on Friday, the number of dislikes exceeded the number of likes. That has changed. She gives a public Facebook address and so I went to it, expecting to see a lot of support. I saw the opposite and so I weighed in on her October 28, 3:50 p.m. post. If you think this is important, I recommend that you do so also. Check out how I responded to one person who went after me and two people who disagreed with me.

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Laughter, Liberty, and M*A*S*H

Television’s finest half-hour reminded America of the values of classical liberalism.

This fall, LIFE magazine has published a special issue commemorating the 50th anniversary of the movie M*A*S*H. Despite the hook, the issue focuses on the ensuing TV series, which ran from 1972 to 1983. Though the show has often been characterized as being politically left-wing, it actually is heavily classically liberal, celebrating the individual, civil liberties, and the market, and harshly criticizing anti-individualism, government compulsion, and government decision-making. In a series of essays, I examine the classical liberalism of M*A*S*H. This is Part 1.

CBS Television, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

 

The TV series M*A*S*H premiered on September 17, 1972 — a bad time to debut an anti-war, anti-establishment dark comedy. America’s mood was on the rebound from the social upheaval of the late-1960s: Operation Linebacker was pushing back the North Vietnamese forces with few U.S. casualties, easing public frustration over the Vietnam War. The nation’s economy was booming, growing 5.25 percent in 1972 and would grow 5.6 percent in 1973. Prosperity and military success produced strong approval numbers for President Richard Nixon, who would be reelected in November with more than 60 percent of the popular vote and winning 49 states.

All that good news was bad for the early weeks of the impertinent if not subversive M*A*S*H. The pilot finished 45th in the week’s ratings, a miserable showing in the three-network era. Subsequent episodes fell into the 50s, raising the specter of cancellation.

But national moods can change quickly when the news changes. Three months before M*A*S*H debuted, the Washington Post reported that five men had been arrested in connection with a break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters. As the show’s first season played out, Watergate mushroomed from an offbeat news item into a full-blown scandal. Halfway through the TV season, a humbled United States signed the Paris Peace Accords, ending America’s involvement in Vietnam; the last U.S. troops left the country on March 29, 1973, four days after M*A*S*H’s first-season finale. That fall, with the show’s second season underway, the OPEC oil cartel cut production in retaliation for western nations’ support of Israel. The resulting energy crisis sent the U.S. stock market reeling and the economy into recession. With inflation already surging, the United States got its first dose of “stagflation.” Finally, on August 9, 1974 — a month before M*A*S*H’s season-three premiere — a disgraced Nixon resigned the presidency.

Those events may have helped Americans embrace the sitcom that treated the inhumanity of war and the inanity of government with a cathartic mix of laughter and tugged heartstrings. M*A*S*H’s ratings rose in the final weeks of its first season, as more viewers began following the goings-on at the fictional 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, located near the front lines of the Korean War. That prefaced regular top-10 finishes for the rest of the show’s 11-year run. M*A*S*H’s cast, crew, and writers would carry off a slew of Emmys and Golden Globes over the next decade. The series finale is television legend; even current Super Bowls struggle to top the nearly 106 million viewers who watched “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen” on February 28, 1983. Following the program’s end, its decommissioned sets, costumes, and props became wildly popular exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution. Today, M*A*S*H continues to draw audiences in syndication, nearly a half-century after it debuted.

What made it so successful? Public reaction to Vietnam and Watergate may explain its first few years, but M*A*S*H was a TV juggernaut for the rest of its run, despite the departure of most of its original cast, change in show runners, and turnover of writers. Even the series’ shift in tenor from situation comedy to dramedy (sometimes heavy on drama) did not weaken its audience.

An academic thesis has argued that the show’s success came in part from its following changing public values and outlooks as the United States moved from leftish libertinism of the early 1970s, to malaise-induced cynicism of the late ‘70s, to the conservative Reagan Revolution of the early 1980s. Yet, libertarians and other classical liberals — who often find political similarities where others see left–right differences — may perceive something else: that throughout its run, M*A*S*H consistently promoted the ideals of classical liberalism.

People unfamiliar with classical liberalism may be unsurprised by the idea that M*A*S*H was a “liberal” show. Several of its cast members are vocal supporters of political causes on the left side of the U.S. political spectrum, and critics (and even some fans) of the series criticize it for being too “lefty” in its later seasons. But this is not the liberalism I mean. The philosophy of classical liberalism acknowledged that government has an important role to play in addressing truly public problems, but that individual liberty and private, consensual relationships are of paramount importance. Classical liberalism is skeptical of government power, appreciates the incentives and benefits of the marketplace, and defends civil liberties. As such, classical liberalism encompassed a broad swath of the American political spectrum as it existed in the latter part of the 20th century, from ACLU civil libertarians, to Jimmy Carter/Bill Clinton centrists, to Ronald Reagan’s small-government conservatives.

To be clear, M*A*S*H’s chief protagonist, surgeon Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce (played by Alan Alda), may not have been an avowed libertarian who leafed through The Road to Serfdom along with his beloved nudie magazines. But he and his comrades embraced and advocated principles and institutions that acknowledged classical liberals hold dear, as did many Americans (including both Democrats and Republicans) of that era. And today, amidst a surge in illiberalism in both the United States and abroad, the show continues to offer classical liberals both comic relief and hope.

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Viral Silence

This semester I volunteered to teach both of my classes in-person.  I’ve also given four public talks in Texas, and one at GMU.  All of these venues had mask mandates.  And in each case, I noticed an eerie pattern: Almost no one talks to each other anymore!  In the past, I had to ask classes to quiet down so I could start class.  Now I usually face dead silence.  Public lecture halls used to overflow with the chatter of the crowd.  Now you can practically hear a pin drop.

From what I’m told, I’m not alone.  When I talk to other faculty who teach in-person (rare, I admit), they too remark upon this viral silence.

What’s the explanation?  Here are my leading candidates.

1. Health fear. People avoid talking to others because they think it increases their odds of getting sick.  If you initiate a conversation, the other person might move closer to hear you better, or even remove his mask to speak more clearly.

2. Social anxiety. People avoid talking to others because they’re worried about upsetting others.  Maybe the other person will feel that you’re standing too close or wearing your mask improperly.  Maybe they’ll even bite your head off for your offense.

3. Poor audibility. Conversation is always a gamble.  If masks make it hard to hear and be heard, the gamble looks worse.  So fewer people place bets by opening their mouths.

4. Lack of normal social cues.  Human beings rely heavily on facial expressions to guide conversation.  So if you can’t see other people’s faces, you don’t know how to talk to each other.  This in turn usually leads to no talking at all.

5. General depression. People are so sad they don’t feel like talking.

6. The social multiplier. An extra factor to consider: Perhaps the preceding factors are all small, but when everyone has the same problem, the total effect remains enormous because humans feed off each other.  My social anxiety amplifies your social anxiety which in then further amplifies my social anxiety.

Other stories?  What’s the truth of the matter?

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