I have a question today that I think boils down into the simplest terms most of the issues we face as a nation this century. To explain, I will use an analogy.
Suppose you are leading the residents of a small village to safety. They can’t go back because their land has been overrun by trolls and goblins, but you know that a safe and rich land lies on the other side of the mountains because you have visited before. You lead the villagers along a narrow ledge between a thousand-foot cliff and a thousand-foot wall. As you round a corner, you discover that an impenetrable wall of magical fire has been erected across your path. At the same time, you realize that an army of trolls is approaching from behind. There is no way to escape and there is no way to hide. Fighting is not a reasonable option. You are outnumbered and have no weapons. After discussing the situation with the town wizard, you come up with two options.
Option One: The wizard will open a gate through the flames, allowing the villagers to walk through, and then close it after all have passed. Unfortunately, these sort of gates are very unstable when matter enters them and there is a ten percent chance it will collapse while the villagers are passing through, killing everyone. Your quest will never be finished and your cause will be lost. On the other hand, there is a ninety percent chance that you will all make it through unscathed.
Option Two: In plenty of time before the trolls arrive, the wizard will open a separate gate for every individual to pass through. There is, of course, a ten percent chance of each gate closing prematurely, meaning that it is a virtual certainty that ten percent of the villagers will not make it. On the other hand, it is also virtually certain that ninety percent of the villagers will make it and while those lost will be missed, life will go on. The community and its way of life will survive.
Personally, I don’t like my fate being tied to others. This is not only for selfish reasons (if the gate is going to close on them, I don’t want it to close on me too), but also because I don’t want to bring others down if it is my time to fail (if the gate is going to close on me, I don’t want it to close on them too). I value liberty. Also, there is something to be said for certainty. In the second scenario, it is a virtual certainty that most will survive, whereas in the first scenario, there is only a ninety percent chance that any will survive. I will choose the second scenario every time.
I’ve been posing this scenario to my coworkers and I’m actually very surprised how many people answer differently when I put this or similar scenarios to them. Some people have this obsession with equality that I don’t understand, preferring to risk it all, even to bring everyone else down, just so we can all be equal. Of course, it sometimes depends on just how the scenario is worded and whether instead of death versus escape it instead involves some coming out the other side with pots of gold. I have worded this in the form of a game show before wherein some win more than others or all win or lose equally together. It also depends on whether others will ever know who made the decision. Politicians, after all, don’t want their names tied to failed projects.
It seems that this type of thinking permeates many of our recent controversial issues. I hear Republicans claim that the Democrats overhauled the entire health care system for the worse just for the sake of the uninsured, who comprise at most – by the highest estimates I’ve heard – just over ten percent of the population. Democrats accuse Republicans of blowing a hole in the budget to fight the War On Terror when one is still at least as likely to be struck by lightning than be hurt in a terrorist attack.
My thinking down this path began when I met a man that wanted to outlaw all forms of education outside of that by a single monopoly that would serve the entire community so that we could all be equal. Even after I pointed out the problems that sometimes arise with lack of competition (reduced quality, propaganda, corruption, higher prices), he made it clear that he was more interested in equality than in the quality of education received.
Hi, I'm Dan. I like chocolate, hiking, and politics.