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Apathy or rebelliousness? A hard choice

By Daniel M. Ryan
web posted August 6, 2009

G20 protest in London
Demonstrators protest a motorcade at the G20 summit in London on April 2

Last Wednesday, CNBC personality Donny Deutsch expressed his desire to see more rebelliousness in today's North American youth. Bringing up the relative rambunctiousness of the young European G20 summit protesters, he said that it's sometimes better to act out when things have gone seriously wrong. People who act out are invigorated by the experience, or at least act as catalysts for invigorating others.

There's something to be said for this perspective, even if it's one that many of said youngsters would shy away from. In the space of public opinion, social tumult is more associated nowadays with slackers and other (some affiliated) riffraff. It takes daring to subtly chide today's youth for being solution-oriented but closed-minded, diligent but cautious, co-operative but herd-like.

It also contains a subtle counter-argument to the broken-window fallacy. Illustrated by Bastiat's Parable of the Broken Window, the fallacy neglects opportunity costs. Breaking a window, and thereby forcing a repair, diverts resources that will, or at least could, be put to other purposes. Those other (real or potential) purposes comprise the opportunity cost, for which the benefit is replacing a window that need not have been replaced at that time. Remembering the opportunity cost makes the claim of "net benefit" an extraordinary claim, for which extraordinary backup should be required.

On the other hand, it could be argued that a broken window shakes people out of apathy. Had the shopkeeper been unable to replace it – a case almost never discussed, as we naturally assume that shopkeepers are never strapped – the glazier might have been moved to an act of charity. The loss might call attention to the problem of vandalism, which might very well lead to a net social or political gain later. Appropriate political (if not social) measures, if properly conceived and skillfully implemented, would lead to a net economic gain later. In this sense, facing one broken window now can save ten from being broken later. If the community was heretofore apathetic, then the sight of the broken window can act as a needed wake-up call. The glazier, out of pity for the poor shopkeeper, might also be motivated to finding new ways of making windows cheaper.

I've drifted from pure economics because the pro-rebelliousness position rests on a psychological premise. Coping, or apathy, sometimes impedes failure analysis and does impede ranks-breaking corrective steps. As a result, problems are often allowed to fester and grow worse without rebelliousness.

Given this train of thought, it seems hard to come up with good counsel for the option of letting sleeping dogs lie. It does seem counter-intuitive to treat a bad outcome as a tragedy, best left unexamined and gotten over instead of picked over. More to the point, advocating non-rebelliousness of youth seems to be a papered-over call to stifle them. The case for political easygoingness, reserving passion and enthusiasm for non-political pursuits, is a difficult one to make in a society transformed by previous episodes of rebelliousness.

The most obvious objection to the pro-rebelliousness side is old and crusty: cui bono? What were the rebellious youths of lore and yore really after? What are the European protesters really after? The brand name says "anarchist," which can mean a variety of stances.

This point actually plays into the hands of the pro-rebelliousness side. If the anarchism is unfocused, then it serves well as a wake-up call. Youths who make specific demands, motivated by a specific ideology, might have to be met with a specific "no." Who wants to answer a wake-up call for being the bad guy? The repressor of youth? "Dr. No"? The launcher of a "constructive crackdown"? After all, if genuine demands are genuinely out of line, someone will have to. Temporizing doesn't always work.

Even in the case of unfocused rebelliousness, though, there are still definite downsides. Bad times do induce frustration, but is rebelliousness the right way to avoid despair? There are other ways of coping; frustration can be channeled into non-visible but productive pursuits. Many a person has done good by sticking to his/her knitting instead of acting out. It just takes some time for that good to be made evident. In this sense, an antithesis of rebelliousness is foresight.

In addition, some problems are "complex" – meaning, morally ambiguous. In times of genuine ambiguity, why lash out? To garner attention? To deflect blame? To grab the spotlight? To scourge one special interest for the benefit of another? To grow closer to friendly-sounding strangers? Cui bono?  is a question often mean-spirited, but it has to be asked. Only fools never ask it.

At the end of this checkered path, we're left with a conundrum. Rebelliousness can be liberating and solution-sparking, but it can also be dissolutive and counter-productive. It can be a Promethean flame or a Pandora's Box. Since we all have different perspectives, if only insignificantly variant from those of our fellows, there can be no final answer to this conundrum. It has to be left to the great warp and woof of history to decide, as the only sensible answers are situational.

Particularly in situations where the other fella has to take the fall. ESR

Daniel M. Ryan is an irregular columnist for LewRockwell.com, and has an undamaged mail address here.



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