Yuri Tarnopolsky                                                                                 ESSAYS
16. On Somebody Else

liberalism. liberal democracy. Francis Fukuyama. superman. Hegel. Nietzsche.  normal distribution. bell curve. dimensions of politics.

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Essay 16. On Somebody Else


This Essay was prompted by the following remark of Alan M. Dershowitz about the deterrent system of justice, i.e., based on the intimidation by the threat of excessive punishment:

Experience teaches us that this kind of a system does not work effectively,  since most potential criminals don't believe they will actually be caught and convicted.

        Alan M. Dershowitz, The Genesis of Justice, 2000. New York: Warner Books, p.255.

There was very little useful knowledge I could  extract from my contacts with the inmates of Russian prisons and labor camps. It might have enriched me with understanding myself—a useless knowledge because I, like the proverbial leopard, could not change my spots anyway—but  the fringe of humanity offered no new insight into its core. In contrast with the scientific experiment that brings the nature to the edge and watches it crack up under pressure, human nature provides us only with statistical expectations in place of intuitive ones.

Among the meager humanitarian baggage I carried out of the world of barbed wire, one observation was very close to the above quotation. I only have a doubt about the word potential . Potential means not actual, and many people who have not yet planned and committed crime are not aware that they are capable of it.  The situation recalls the remark of Robert Jordan in For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway. When asked if there were fascists in America, he said that “there are, but they are not aware of that.”

The second and last observation was equally trivial: the detention does not make anybody better. And that was all I learned. Alan Dershowitz is  absolutely right.

Professional criminals I met were anxious to get back to their trade and they were sure that next time they would never make a mistake. Somebody else would be caught but not they.

The attitude is not unique to the burglars and thieves. Everybody drives, flies, goes out, strolls sidewalks, and enjoys life because he or she believes that somebody else will get into a traffic accident, airplane crash, or will get food poisoning, stray bullet, or cancer. Statistical data support this belief of the optimist, but, for the pessimist, probability is the welcoming portal of misfortune. The asymmetry of human nature makes us trust the good luck more than the bad one.

I am not planning a crime and neither have I committed one (never believe such a statement), but I have something to confess.

I am an unwilling liberal: unwilling because I don't like the reasons why I am liberal.

It is difficult to start a confession, but then it may be hard to stop.

I treasure personal freedom. I don't like restrictions. As somebody who spent most of his active life in a totalitarian society, I enjoy American freedom.

I am not in opposition to the existing society. I don't know what a good or better social order is. A social flaw, as I see it, is nothing but my personal attitude to it.

I would probably be more aggressive and intolerant if I lived an active life, but my activity is over. Because of that, I have an advantage of impartiality.

I am not completely impartial, however, because I am a liberal.  This is a statement, a point of view, an instinct, and a bias. I have a prejudice of being liberal. I am not quite tolerant of non-liberals. I wish I could be more tolerant. I am more individualist than altruist. I wish I could be more altruistic. I loathe anarchy but I mistrust organizations. I am not sure what democracy is and I believe that any Constitution is conservative by default.  I think that equality is a kind of perpetuum mobile, the impossible eternal motion. I believe that cooperation is profitable for both sides, and we do not have to regard it as a moral value. I believe that the highest values of life are health, freedom (see Essay 3, On Free Hay Trade), and peace of mind, but I would never impose my somewhat Oriental values on the rest of the world.  I don't believe either happiness or virtue to be the highest value. I believe that learning, understanding, and dark chocolate  are among highest bitter-sweet pleasures of life. I believe love is made of all three. My attitude to the world is defensive. I do not believe that life is an absolute, overwhelming and overriding value, and I believe that there is no single highest and overriding value.

One of my deepest convictions is that any abstract idea that contradicts basic human needs is a definitely bad abstract idea. To be logical, it means that "bad" is not bad idea per se but only its extreme and unopposed advance. It also means that the basic needs are those recognized by an absolute majority of people, and the opinion of the absolute majority of people is something I cannot rely on.

But that was not my confession, just a warm-up.

I confess that I am a liberal because I believe, like a thief,  that somebody will take the risks of liberalism, while I will definitely enjoy liberal democracy or suffer the consequences of anti-liberalism.

There is neither a universally accepted understanding of what liberalism is, nor a unity among people regarding themselves or others liberals, nor any chance for anybody to read all the uncountable special literature on the subject which comprises all of the humanities.

Steve Kangas maintains a bird's eye view site on liberalism. The site works as a psychoanalyst's session: it makes the reader discover, to his or her surprise, something deeply hidden in the mind. Or, if you wish, it is a lie detector test.

For example, I was surprised to find out that I, considering myself a liberal, tend to disagree with at least five out of eight characteristics of liberalism as opposed to conservatism:

Liberals                      Conservatives
Collectivism               Individualism
Change                        Tradition
Science                       Religion
Inclusiveness              Exclusiveness
Democracy                 Constitutionalism
Equality                      Merit
Public Sector              Private Sector
Pacifism                      Armed Deterrence

Looking for various definitions, I did not find myself at odds with definitions of liberalism associating it with "individual freedom," ( definition 1 ) such qualities as "intellectually independent, broad-minded, magnanimous, frank, open, and genial" ( definition 2 ) , although I cannot accept that:

A fundamental principle of Liberalism is the proposition: "It is contrary to the natural, innate, and inalienable right and liberty and dignity of man, to subject himself to an authority, the root, rule, measure, and sanction of which is not in himself" (definition 2).

I believe this sounds more like the credo of anarchism.

That  "Liberals want to change things to increase personal freedom and tolerance, and are willing to empower government to the extent necessary to achieve those ends" (definition 3) seems to directly contradict definition 2: how can one demand from anybody to succumb to the will of the government if it is contrary to one's dignity?

Finally, definition 4 has nothing to do at all with liberalism as I understand it, which may mean that I don't understand it at all:

 1: a political orientation that favors progress and reform
 2: an economic theory advocating free competition and a self-regulating market
    and the gold standard.

I don't know about the gold standard, but a self-regulating market advocates anything but equality and any right-wing conservative is for reforms.

I am not even sure what the opposite of liberalism is. One can conservatively believe in old liberal values and resist the postmodern and frivolous ones.

Like many readers, I was greatly impressed, without being convinced, by Francis Fukuyama's The End of History and the Last Man. I see this book as a concise critical introduction into liberalism. It is complemented with the author's position that summarizes a host of accumulated over decades hints, forebodings, views, and ideas, partly old and fossilized, and partly new and shyly fluttering in the air. It seems, however, that the reaction of academic reviewers was rather negative or condescending, but it was not an academic book but an extended question. An answer can be wrong but a question is always right, whatever we say about "wrong question."

The title of the Fukuyama's book starts with an allusion to G. W. F. Hegel who, having witnessed the French Revolution, saw the final phase of world history in the reign of law and personal freedom, which for him was freedom of Spirit.

It is worth mentioning that  Hegel saw the beneficial end of history in German monarchy, too, because:

Yet with firmly established laws, and a settled organization of the State, what is left to the sole arbitrament of the monarch is, in points of substance, no great matter. It is certainly a very fortunate circumstance for a nation, when a sovereign of noble character falls to its lot; yet in a great state even this is of small moment, since its strength lies in the Reason incorporated in it.
  (Hegel: The Philosophy of History, pdf)

The second part of the title points to Nietzsche who in Thus Spoke Zarathustra wrote:

There cometh the time of the most despicable man, who can no longer despise himself.  Lo!  I show you THE LAST MAN.  "What is love?  What is creation?  What is longing?  What is a star?"--so asketh the last man and blinketh.  The earth hath then become small, and on it there hoppeth the last man who maketh everything small.

History formally linked Hegel (through his distant student Karl Marx) and Nietzsche to the roots of  the self-destructive ideas of fascism and communism. The lives of Hegel (1770-1831), Marx (1818-1883), Nietzsche (1844-1900), Lenin (1870-1924), and Hitler (1889-1945) overlapped, covering a long historical period, like a growing cloud from which the thunderbolt of the World War II finally struck. Of course, to blame philosophers for that is like to blame Richard Wagner for the Holocaust. The French Revolution that inspired Hegel was gruesome enough.

In a very simplified form, Fukuyama's concept means that the liberal democracy, equalizing all individuals and groups, leads to either bleak purposeless existence of the Nietzschean last men or to an advent of a new totalitarian strongman. Ideas do not die, but liberal democracy seems to be an idea loaded with a kind of self-destructive implementation and more appealing as an ideal than as a reality. In short, it is philosophically incorrect to be happy even if it is politically correct.

Strangely anticipating Nietzsche, Hegel wrote in Philosophy of History  that "periods of happiness are blank pages" in the history of the world. Hitler and Stalin certainly left no paper wasted, but made their nations happy for a while. I suspect, however, that history hates void as much as physical nature does, and we need not be concerned about being bored by happiness.

By the very nature of my Essays I have to remain at the level of impressions and analogies, which means to be wired above the ground like Peter Pan over the theater stage. I cannot descend on the floor of research and analysis. I would only add that Fukuyama is not alone, although nobody has stated the problem so head-on, and with so much argumentation and refinement, although not without ambiguity.

Here is my personal view of liberalism, which may not be too original.

Most people in the world are not concerned with politics, philosophy, and art and live by basic human needs that include entertaining and pleasure together with needs of the body. They accept the existing order and mind their business. They have their radius of freedom. They are happy to be like everybody. They work, love, and live. Others—a minority—try to create something that would distinguish them from the rest and set apart from the average. But what is average and what does it mean to be set apart from it?

The following curve is known as the bell curve or  normal distribution curve and although it is a mathematical object, it carries some political charge. bell

Its meaning is very simple. If the property is the height of a human, then most probable height of a randomly chosen person is close to the average represented by point C on the curve. The more the height differs from the average, the less probable it is. There are very few very tall people and very few very short ones. Thus, 68 % of all people have heights between vertical lines B and D and 95% have heights between A and E.  Separate measurements for men and women would give two different curves of similar shape but with different average. Similarly, the height curves for Thailand and Sweden will have different averages.

The normal distribution curve is symmetrical, which means that there must be an approximately equal number of deviations up and down from the average. In the normal distribution, the deviation of the value is, theoretically, infinite in both opposite directions, although large deviations are practically impossible.

There is a neat demo of the normal distribution and a lot of sites on the subject where one can find the reason for the mysterious numbers 68% and 95% ,  points B and D, and other things highly relevant for understanding the reality of everyday life and for many social and political issues.

The real probability distribution in nature and technology may not be completely normal if there are constraints on the measured property, i.e., somebody or something works on the system in order to make it less random. For example, the height of a free-growing apple tree distributes normally, but in the garden, under artificial selection, it can be skewed by cutting down all trees only below or only above a certain height. Systems with competition for a limited resource can also present a highly biased picture. Normal distribution is an evidence of the random nature of processes leading to a certain height as well as of sampling.

A highly ordered system has a very narrow probability distribution, with the majority of components very close to the average. A more chaotic system tends to have a flattened distribution, with outstretched wings.

In general, the shape of the probability distribution for a particular random system can vary but the main principle is that the larger the deviation from the average, the less probable it is. Thus formulated, it is simply common sense, like much of the science of probabilities.

The distribution of the speed of molecules (see Essay 14, On Taking Temperature with a Clock , from which the figure on the right is copied) is not normal. Still, the shape of the curve is close to the bell form, although stretched in one direction. This skewed bell shape is known as Maxwell-Boltzmann distribution and it depends on the temperature.

NOTE:  In Essay 31, On Poverty, a bell shape deformed into a shark fin shape can be found.

Since energy is proportional to the square of the speed, the distribution of energies will look similar to the speed distribution.

There is a cardinal difference between height of humans and speed of molecules. While height is a permanent property of an individual adult, speed is a dynamic property. A molecule constantly changes its speed vector as result of collisions with other molecules. Human society combines static and dynamic properties as result of various kinds of exchange between its members, for example, exchange of wealth and opinion. This is why humans bear some "molecularity:" not because there are a lot of them and they are in motion—so is sand in the tide—but because they are involved in a constant interaction. This is what we call dynamic system.

The physical details about Maxwell-Boltzmann distribution are abundant on the Web, see a good analysis and simulator , with remarkable "big picture" generalizations somewhat relevant for the human "big picture" I am trying to imagine.

Human energy, determination, spirit, charisma, stamina, ambition, momentum, drive, creativity, intelligence, pride, and other dynamic properties vary from, theoretically, zero, to, theoretically, if not infinite then some potentially large value. Its limit is as unknown as any future sports record. If only we could measure ambition like we measure height! We still can do it without numbers, see Essay 13, On Numbers.

Since ancient times, philosophers and, later, social psychologists tried to define the evasive and multifaceted dynamic property that Plato called thymos but regarded it as a static component of the soul.

The following quotation from Francis Fukuyama's book gives not only a condensed explanation but also a sample of his style.

It was first described by Plato in the Republic, when he noted that there were three parts to the soul, a desiring part, a reasoning part, and a part that he called thymos, or "spiritedness." Much of human behavior can be explained as a combination of the first two parts, desire and reason: desire induces men to seek things outside themselves, while reason or calculation shows them the best way to get them. But in addition, human beings seek recognition of their own worth, or of the people, things, or principles that they invest with worth. The propensity to invest the self with a certain value, and to demand recognition for that value, is what in today's popular language we would call "self-esteem." The propensity to feel self-esteem arises out of the part of the soul called thymos. It is like an innate human sense of justice. People believe that they have a certain worth, and when other people treat them as though they are worth less than that, they experience the emotion of anger. Conversely, when people fail to live up to their own sense of worth, they feel shame, and when they are evaluated correctly in proportion to their worth, they feel pride. The desire for recognition, and the accompanying emotions of anger, shame, and pride, are parts of the human personality critical to political life. According to Hegel, they are what drives the whole historical process.

The big picture is that any human ability, physical as well as intellectual and related to character, distributes over the population along some bell-like curve, varying from zero to yet unknown record limit.  I believe, so does what Fukuyama calls, after Plato, thymos.

I would define "generalized thymos" as the will (desire, volition, activity, etc.) of an individual to deviate from the average. Plato believed it was the drive to recognition, Nietzsche saw it as power, Napoleon and Hitler saw it as conquest, Lenin and Stalin saw it as maximal political domination, but it does not really matter what they wanted. What matters is that they wanted it very much and not only wanted but acted toward achieving their goal. Ambition is, probably, the best modern approximation of the Greek thymos.

I would call it energy: the human drive to reach the extreme outward wing of the bell curve. We actually widely use the word creative energy in this sense. The recognition comes as a number: money, possessions, territory, sales, prize, romances, awards, publications, grants, references, media attention, biographies, etc., or simply being number one. It depends on the interaction with other people, like the energy of molecules.

Among people with high energy  (Vilfredo Pareto's elites, see Note 1) we can find not only conquerors and emperors but also great philosophers, artists, scientists, inventors, builders, founders of institutions, national leaders who selflessly served the nation in times of a crisis, reformers, industrialists, philanthropists, leaders of  social or ethnic movements, and others who were mostly but not always universally praised by the posterity. Plato, Hegel, and Nietzsche are in the same wing of the curve with Napoleon.

Instead of— or in addition to—enjoying whatever life brings, focusing on everyday problems, making day to day decisions, struggling for personal survival,  limiting the sphere of personal interests by family, friends, and pets, pursuing pleasure, accepting the existing order or fighting for a comfortable personal place in it, "people of the wing"  did what historically only a minority could do: they left the world changed not over millennia, as nature does, but, sometimes, overnight.

I do not see any reason either to scorn the common people and extol the commanding ones, as Nietzsche did, or to reverse the sympathies, as Leo Tolstoy did, or to pit one against the other, as Francis Fukuyama's concept might unintentionally imply.

The principle of ethical equality, not the equality of numbers, is one of the points of my definition for liberalism, together with compassion, understanding, and skepticism.

My equality is the equality under the bell, i.e., under the laws of nature, and not under the laws of the book. Any book might be short of compassion and reason and should be taken with skepticism.

Having come from the Soviet Communism known in the West for inhuman cruelty, I have often been struck by the cruelty and irrational  excesses of the American law in both punishment and reward. The maximum prison term in the Soviet Union was fifteen years.

The bell-shaped distribution is the law of nature. The potatoes may be of different size, but they all are the farmer's crop. The absolute majority of people we are attached to are close to average.

Here, however,  I am interested in the big potatoes of creative energy.

I believe that there are two basic creative attitudes to life. I would call the extremes leaders and dreamers. An alternative term for leader is dealer.

Artists and philosophers were pure dreamers because they produced new ideas and images that required little physical energy and can be done strictly individually, without a team. The dreamer manipulates words, brush strokes, sounds, images, words, ideas, and, sometimes, modest hardware. A teenager at the computer is also a dreamer in this sense.

Leaders, like Napoleon, could impose their will on huge armies and bring them into motion with destructive and constructive goals. Realization of the goals often required spending enormous physical energy and could never be accomplished individually. Pyramids of Egypt and America are classical examples.

The leader creates the desired order by will and power. Most of human history has been driven by the extreme leaders: king, emperor, gray cardinal, general, industrialist, organizer, founder, revolutionary, national leader, etc., who does not necessarily wins. A leader can be liberal in the common political sense. The essence of being a leader is to be strong. The leader manipulates fellow humans like the teenager the keyboard, Hegel ideas, and the Pharaoh's builder the stone blocks. In essence, however, it is the same abstract game of Lego.

There is a big and radical difference in the position of the leader and the dreamer. The leader simply makes what he or she wants by controlling  (see Essay 15. On menage a trois in the Stone Age) resources of energy, labor, and human emotions. The leader sets the rules of the game, like the Nietzsche's Superman (ironically, the liberal cartoon Superman simply solves daily problems without setting the rules).

The leader is strong with all his human weakness.

The strength of the week is in their large numbers while the strength of the strong is in small numbers of competitors.

The dreamer is weak because he is alone, although he can be humanly strong.  The development of individualism in the Western civilization, since the Greeks and through Christianity, taught him that his life was as valuable as any other. This idea, that might have looked crazy to the pharaohs and Chinese emperors, could appear only in communities of a medium size, more than family but less than kingdom, i.e., in the city and city-state.  The pressure in the pumped-up tire is the resistence of molecular individualism.

The dreamer seeks protection from social harm by appealing to a force as strong as that of the leader: the law based on the principles of individual freedom and equality, i.e., the liberal democracy that does not make the dreamer stronger but makes the leader weaker. The dreamer believes that he can survive alone in the environment of equality where predators are declawed. But in his heart, the energetic dreamer never believes he or she is equal to others.

Liberal democracy would be wishful thinking of the dreamers if not for the Industrial Revolution and capitalism.

Democracy displaced monarchy for different reasons in different countries. Revolutions  were made by leaders along the ideas of the dreamers, but they also transformed some dreamers into leaders. At some extent the new order has made most common people dreamers of a kind, literally, with the run of the mill dream of the pursuit of happiness. The average citizen of democracy is a mini-dreamer whose dream is to win a fair competition, but there is no fairness in big numbers, only probability.

The great paradox of equality is that you are lost in it, unless there is a hierarchy, i.e., inequality. You are lost like a book in a big library without a catalog. You are lost until somebody tells the potential readers that you exist whether as individual or as a category. You are lost like a site on the Web unless it is linked to star sites. Liberals pursue equality in the hope to distance themselves from it. They believe that somebody else will be lost, but not they.

Fighting the depressing equality, individualism creates hierarchies, pecking orders, ratings, stars, and satellites. It means giving recognition to dozens of small and temporary Napoleons and Hegels,  Shakespeares and Rembrandts of the day. The spontaneous generation of dynamic hierarchy by liberal democracy is the phenomenon that plays the role of an automatic control that keeps liberalism at a certain steady but slowly drifting state.

Liberalism is self-contained, while despotism can be unopposed. This is why liberalism is not as suicidal as it may seem. Too much liberalism is as improbable as too much body height. Besides, there are always embryos of future leaders in the cocoons of dreams. The leader has no heirs.

The lonely dreamer can stand against despotism only if he is a soldier of an army of volunteers, and this is possible if all the other soldiers are in sync with him.  The strength of the democratic army lies in its numbers and in three pieces of weaponry: voting power, labor power, and consumer power.  The dreamer unites the crowds with his or her liberal ideas that require maybe just a cup of coffee to be formulated, while the despot needs well fed goon squads, tanks, and prisons to contain immaterial ideas—the goal doomed from the start, but, probably, only in the long run.

It is remarkable how recent social evolution has been taking away a good part of the voting power and labor power from the masses by developing the national and global economy that depends on the individual voter, worker, and consumer. The political reality has made politicians more interchangeable and the choice between the candidates less crucial. The economic system and the related culture of consumption and debt made the labor less willing to take risks. But the role of the consumer shot up. The consumer became the omnipotent democratic constituency.  This fusion of consumer base with political base is, in my opinion, one of the most pronounced and funny to watch trends of liberal democracy. No wonder that free market is a liberal ideal.

Any member of the creative elite of dreamers—artist, scientist, writer, pop star, and philosopher—produces goods for sale and has no desire to limit his consumer base by alienating buyers, students, grant review boards, readers, listeners, and minorities because in the consumer society the punishment for narrowing the consumer/constituency base hurts incomparably more than it did two centuries back, in the mansards of Montmartre.  Here is a telling illustration of the fusion of politics and economy:

The growing black middle and working classes put their money and the bodies on the line. In addition, because the consumer economy depended on consumer purchasing, black demands had to be taken seriously. By 1970, black buying power topped $25 billion, a large enough sum to make the threat of boycotts an effective weapon for social change.
   ( Harvard Sitkoff, The Preconditions for Racial Change, from: A History of Our Time:
Readings on Postwar America, Edited by William H. Chafe, Harvard Sitkoff, New York,
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987, p.153. )

It is funny to watch how a politician who is supposed to be a leader becomes a dreamer navigating between the irreconcilable consumer/constituency tastes. Today every presidential candidate says "I have a dream" after one of a very few true leaders who were also true dreamers.

Like order and chaos, liberalism and anti-liberalism, whatever the latter is, are only the extreme ends of the continuous scale. Whoever calls for equality, calls for the inequality of the bell curve. Whoever calls for inequality, all the more, calls for inequality.

Theoretically, there are two possible opposite political doctrines: one is for the normalization of the bell curve (political and market liberalism) and the other, like the gardener who cuts the apple trees, is for interference with it, i.e., denormalization of the curve (slavery, apartheid, cast system, class and group politics, entitlements, and war on either poverty or wealth fall into this category). There is yet another possible pair: one calls for narrowing the distribution tight around the average (this is close to socialism), and the other calls for flattening it (the law of the jungle or food chain). Finally, the third possible pair calls either for raising the temperature (cultural liberalism) or for freezing (totalitarianism, fundamentalism).

The property presented by the curve can be any, but wealth, income, knowledge, and opportunities are never distributed along the normal bell curve, see Essay 31, On Poverty.

This subject is inexhaustible and it is not my intent to burrow into it any deeper. If it were, I would next explore the phenomenon of the star, individual as well as corporate, this new embodiment of Superman, Superwoman, and Superchild that pushes aside both leaders and dreamers, and how liberalism entrusts bureaucracy to enforce hierarchy, and how liberal society inadvertently loses in conflicts with non-liberal ones on the global arena.

My rational intent was to add to my Essay 9, On Work that understanding is compassion and it may be very humane to complement dark Hegel and Nietzsche with some undergraduate laws of nature.

My irrational intent was to confess that  I am a deeply convinced liberal and ashamed of it because, enjoying liberal democracy, I believe that somebody else will get bad luck, while I will have all the juice.

Like the King Midas who shaves himself, I am confessing to the hole in the ground that I have donkey's ears. Having done that, I feel less shame. Probably, I am not that much liberal, after all. But just one look at the Web sites of anti-liberals drives me back to my true flock.


1. Vilfredo Pareto  (1848-1923) should be mentioned in connection with the bell curve, Maxwell-Boltzmann distribution and with Nietzsche because of his highly original and anti-liberal in modern sense sociological concepts that I find strongly realistic and physical-chemical in nature.  Pareto, an engineer by education, compared society with molecular system in equilibrium. In his time the non-equilibrium thermodynamics was in embryo. Pareto called groups of individuals of high achievement in their fields elites. Pareto demonstrated the influence of competition on the non-randomness of the distribution of wealth and offered his own curve known as Pareto distribution and having nothing in common with the bell. He was blamed (or praised) for fascism.

More about Pareto: Essay 31, On Poverty .

2.  NOTE AFTER SEPTEMBER 11, 2001.  Somebody else died in unthinkable numbers.  

   Page created: 2001                                                     Revised: 2016

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