FREEDOM AND THE FISH OUT OF WATER

It would be very difficult to convince a goldfish that he should be thankful for his bowl of water.  He knows nothing else.  You could try very hard to penetrate the fish’s ambivalence, but you would fail, because his life has evolved past the recognition that he owes his very life to the fluid in which he resides.  He was born in water, and therefore lacks the context for understanding that it is even more critical to his existence than the food that you sprinkle daily atop it.

Context.  If, however, some terrible force were to knock the bowl over and cause it to shed its precious fluid, all of the efforts to educate the fish will pale by comparison to its vivid, complete and immediate understanding of that which you tirelessly professed as it gasps and struggles for the  breath that it took for granted moments earlier.  Now, you will have the fish’s undivided attention as it desperately calls upon every cell of its being to simultaneously comprehend its newly discovered mortality, and cling to its fleeting life.

Americans are not unlike the fish.  We are steeped in liberty.  It was all around us when we were born.  It has been here ever since.  Most people’s frame of reference is limited to their own life experiences.  Just like the fish, we do not suffer in desperation until it leaves us no choice.  At that moment all of the things we took for granted become vividly clear though they were virtually unobservable moments before.

Perhaps the last thing on anyone’s mind during the maiden voyage of the Titanic was the idea that it would sink remarkably fast, and that it would be ill-equipped to handle hundreds of fear-crazed passengers as they scrambled for lifeboats.

Perhaps that greatest statement on this reality of human nature was by Thomas Jefferson.  He wrote in the Declaration Of Independence: “[A]ll Experience hath shewn, that Mankind are more disposed to suffer, while Evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the Forms to which they are accustomed.”  But this statement implies knowledge on the part of the individual that he is indeed suffering.  That recogniton is not present in America.  We are the oblivious fish.  Our Republic is the precariously perched bowl, and the liberty guaranteed by our Constitution is the water, the appreciation for which, we are blinded to because we are steeped too comfortably within it.

When we engage in debate about “improving” our society, we should be mindful that we may not survive many more governmentally controlled improvements.  Our Founders designed our system of government — a representative democracy — specifically to guarantee the maximum amount of liberty to the individual.  This guarantee is like a commission-driven sales job.  It is what you make of it.  The sky is the limit in a free society, but be careful not to focus so long on crafting the safety net that you remove the incentive to fly.  Our Founders recognized that life has purpose beyond government, so government should be crafted in such a way as to not frustrate that natural tendency toward the pursuit of happiness.   They would have said that the bowl exists for the fish, not the other way around. 

Unfortunately, we have been in the bowl for so many generations, that we sometimes look to it to define the pursuit of happiness when in fact it is an impediment to it.  Our pursuit of happiness is possible because of the liberty we employ to obtain it.  No system of government can come close.  Man left to his own devices will always produce a greater life for himself and his family than any system of government could.  All that is required of us is that we do not screw up the freedom over which we enjoy a temporary stewardship; always mindful that each governmental “solution” for some perceived ill, is a new impediment on the backs of our children.  Too many such “solutions” are suicide to this great nation, but we must recognize what we have in order to know the down-side of ever-expanding government.  Let’s not wait until we are left with no choice. 

We could use people who understand that which the fish did not; that liberty is obvious to those without it, but invisible to those within it.

6 Comments

  1. John

    This strikes a very interesting cord. I am not sure that we can do much to tun back the hands of the politiians that got us to our current state, but we can try and stem the tide of future opression.

  2. John

    This strikes a very interesting cord. I am not sure that we can do much to tun back the deeds of the politiians that got us to our current state, but we can try and stem the tide of future opression.

  3. Sam

    I suppose the average person, like the goldfish, is apt to be content with the environment which best provides for our basic needs those of our families. As Thomas Jefferson pointed out, we are willing to abide some “evil” as we become comfortable — and unknowingly complacent — with the forces which shape our environment. But, I imagine, this complacency continues only for as long as the basic needs are met. As the environment becomes less favorable for us and our families we become more dissatisfied with it…and less complacent in accepting it. Evenually we are sufficiently motivated to take action.

    It would seem that the factors which inspire action are different for each person; we each have our individual “red line” which define the boundary between the acceptable and the unacceptable. Philosophical, moral, financial, environmental or spiritual, these red lines are as varied as our national fabric and very tough to define. For some, big government protects their red line — for others, it is the threat. Just as the goldfish will not thrive in purely distilled water, it will also suffer in water that is heavy with minerals. Basic needs are a balance.

    I’m reminded that for the average person the quest for individual liberty cuts both ways. On a recent trip to Bosnia and Herzegovina I had occasion to speak frankly with a number of ‘average’ citizens. In a country that is experiencing terrific unemployment and a fractured and difficult government, many longed for the security, stability and ‘good life’ that communist Yugoslavia provided.

    Clear reminder that government, no matter the size, must effectively provide basic needs for the citizens.

  4. Thank you for your reply and what is an excellent — and eloquent — observation. The distinction though is that the United States has a Constitution which grew out of infringement of the basic needs you discuss. Your point is well-taken on the comparison between the citizen embroiled in despair and his neighboring country with a communist regime. The rotten, partially eaten refuse from a garbage can looks irresistable to the starving man, but your point is deeper than that. A communist nation (as long as it is not run by a violent Stalin or Hitler-like dictator — actually, that may be a rare find) in its best case offers a structure that one can survive in. Few will thrive, but survival occupies the entire field of view to the starving man. If I were to tell him that I would feed him and his family for a year if he cut off his own finger, his circumstances might make that an attractive offer. I suspect that he would trade that offer in a minute for passage to the United States. In the article, I sought to explain the question of why your acquaintence would see so clearly the very liberty and freedom that we cast away in exchange for government services. He would marvel at how blind many of us are to it. For him, the prospect of a college education and a future well beyond concern for his next meal would be like a fantasy. He would no doubt be one of the greatest American achievers because he would see that America’s promise lies in the boundlessness of freedom. His neighboring country probably offers what we would consider bare essentials but never upward mobility and freedom. He would gladly take it because it might remedy his greatest immediate problems (starvation, exposure to elements, etc.). The price for communism, however, is that you cannot expect liberty. When the wall came down in East Germany, the faces of the people told me everything I needed to know about the largest prison in history and the euphoric joy of being liberated therefrom. But, like my article my vantage point was from the comfort of my home. I do not presume to understand that which you have seen by observing scenes like the one you describe. I suppose that makes me a hipocritical fish because I have never lived in despotism, despair, or communism. I can only opine philosophically which pales by comparison to real-life experiences that you have witnessed first-hand. I believe that you are right about balance. Our Founders did not believe that government has no legitimate purpose or utility. Neither do I. They believed in legitimate government functions and listed them in Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution. That and my own life experiences are the only frame of reference I have, but I have to believe that the man you describe would opt for a limitless future that liberty offers over the immediate, bare-minimum, and fleeting gratification that his communist neighbor offers. Okay . . . I would understand if he went there first for a hot meal, and then came here. We could use people who understand that which the fish did not; that liberty is obvious to those without it, and invisible to those within it. Thanks for replying! P.S. Your Jefferson reference from the Declaration is one of my all-time favorite quotes!

  5. Thank you for your reply. I am afraid you are right. Even if we right the ship, the fact that we have not come close enough to disaster means that our memories will be short. Thus, we shall most likely return to our unconstitutional government expansions of the past. If, ontheotherhand, the ship copntinues to list — which is a real possibility with Obama at the helm, then we may founder. That is a horror that many of us may not survive. It is human nature that the worse the horror, the longer the memory.

  6. Thank you for your reply. I am afraid you are right. Even if we right the ship, the fact that we have not come close enough to disaster means that our memories will be short. Thus, we shall most likely return to our unconstitutional government expansions of the past. If, ontheotherhand, the ship copntinues to list — which is a real possibility with Obama at the helm, then we may founder. That is a horror that many of us may not survive. It is human nature that the worse the horror, the longer the memory.



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