Saturday, March 13, 2010

Still life with pipe and book

“With Pipe and Book”, the great used book store/tobacconist in Lake Placid, has closed. The store was wonderfully anachronistic, a monument to a time when pipes and books mattered.  The era of leisurely reading in the evening, pipe in hand, has long since passed. Now we have so many more choices: to read or to surf the internet. To watch TV, chat electronically with friends. The choices are killing us! We have the choice to eat lovingly-prepared foods or to eat processed junk, and we choose the junk. We have the choice of reading books that stretch our imagination and our intellect, but we choose to overload our senses with noisy nothingness. We choose to shop at Wal-Mart, eat at McDonalds. When given the choice, we repeatedly fail to live well. Back in the era of pipes and books, there was little choice but to read or to have face-to-face exchanges with fellow humans.  Either that or waste away in silent darkness. Sometimes the only choice we had for occupying our minds was to sit and think (pipe in hand, of course). Now we have the choice: to think or not to think. And we often choose not to think.

As a libertarian it feels strange to say this, but I guess I don’t always want a choice. Maybe sometimes we just have to consciously surrender our choice, not to the government (of course) but to our own social and religious affiliations. For instance, if I were to name a child, I would probably choose a family name. There are far too many names out there- never mind all the made-up names I could potentially conjure. I would choose to select from a far more limited set of choices that includes the names of my grandparents, great uncles, great grandparents. Perhaps freedom is living in a world of respected mores, family customs and cultural and religious traditions, of unspoken rules and structure, where individuals choose their choice-limiting structures out of love and honor and commitment. True freedom of choice is bewildering, unsettling. Like the world envisioned by Sartre, who claimed that we must formulate our own personal essence from the ground up, one agonizing choice at a time. But really nobody can do that. Nobody can self-create. We need structures: parents to lean on, customs to follow, mores to obey.  Perhaps libertarianism is a pragmatic political ideology in that it allows communities to flourish without outside intervention and allows people to limit their choices in ways that imbue their lives with meaning and self-worth.

Free markets are surely not the ultimate answer, as they largely fuel the fire of excessive choice. Why is it that so many libertarians think that free markets will solve everything? Without strong communities, strong families, strong cultural grounding, free markets will just fuel our destructive joyride through life. Free markets are good for getting people what they want, efficiently and cheaply. This is marvelous and indispensable, but there is more to life than getting what we want. The free market will turn us all into spoiled children if we don’t watch out.  The free market is not a path to a satisfying life, it is not inherently good or evil. It is just an efficient means for distribution of scarce goods among people. And certainly central government is not the answer either. Central government takes the most important choices away from the people who actually care about the outcome.  Central government removes choice but replaces it by the evils of fear and indifference.  A central government does not respect the self-worth of the individual and makes decrees that people have no personal stake in obeying, except out of fear.  
I guess what I'm saying is that the virtues of hard work, hard thought, hard love, are paramount. We can’t sink into complacency and think that free markets or government will solve all of our problems. A satisfying life requires character, developing strong ties with other human beings, working hard to reach difficult goals. But developing character is hard work. It’s easier to watch TV, following the political circus on MSNBC as if we’re affecting the play, or to lose ourselves in video games depicting a better, more exciting world.  And the choice is ours: to lead a meaningful life or to make the comfortable choice.  To trek into the wilderness or to buy the heated mattress pad.

So we haven't arrived at any answers, really.  Whatever, the questions are always more interesting than the answers anyway.  I don't know what I'm going to do this next week, never mind for the rest of my life, but for now maybe I'll just fall back in time for a few moments, and sit down with a book and a pipe.  I don't own a pipe, but doesn't that sound pretty good right about now?  


  1. So they really are closed? I will miss that place.

  2. NOOOOOO! I am so glad we got to go there. They were on our list for places to take our kids when we went to New York! I am so sad it is gone. Alas.