Two Views of Life — and Government

Your parents lied to you. So did mine.

They told us:

“You can do anything if you make up your mind to do it.”

Nope. Not true.

Don’t be too hard on parents. It’s a well-meaning lie. It’s arguably even a justified lie. Children shouldn’t prematurely limit their aspirations in life.

We can do a lot of things, often more than we believe we can. Positive thinking is helpful. Determination and persistence make a difference. There’s an adage I like:

“You never know how strong you are until being strong is your only option.”

Even so, what we can actually accomplish is limited, both by our circumstances and by ourselves.

For example, I was on the cross-country running team in high school. I’m an unlikely runner, since I’m short, stocky, and barely on speaking terms with the bathroom scale. But the school required sports participation, and cross-country was the only sport that didn’t require calisthenics, which I hate.

At the first practice, I set a record for the longest it had ever taken anyone to run the cross-country course. At the end of the season, I got a varsity letter on my jacket for only three reasons: I worked hard, I always showed up, and I always finished. Not everyone did. Some of the better runners coasted on their natural ability, and they got letters, too. They won cross-country meets, so they earned them. On the other hand, at final exam time, they crowded into my dorm room in the evenings because academic subjects are where I had the natural ability.

So two factors both affect what we accomplish:

  • What we do, and
  • What we are.

The same applies to systems of government. Many of our political problems arise from grabbing one alternative and denying the other.

If government is just something that we make up — a rationalistic social contract — then we can make it any way we want. But if it grows naturally from the history, values, and traits of a specific group of people, then our options are more limited.

That’s why, for example, imposing “democracy” on Iraq at the point of a bayonet was always a fool’s errand. Democracy is a Western value, derived from our long history that goes back to Ancient Athens. It has no roots in the history or character of most Middle Eastern peoples or the rest of the world, for that matter. Iraq and Middle Eastern countries other than Israel are undemocratic because that’s what’s natural for them. We can try to persuade them that greater civic participation and individual freedom are good ideas, but such ideas do not survive easily in their soil.


Check out my new book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

About N.S. Palmer

N.S. Palmer is an American mathematician.
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