Self-Doubt as a Lesson in Political Philosophy


Although generally harmful, self-doubt is a fabulous remedy against an excessive faith in mere liberty.

Sometimes I run my mind through all of my activities and challenges — at work, in my community, in my family, around my house, and for my own wellbeing — and I have to admit that there must be somebody else better suited to fill the roles I’m filling.  A better writer, for example, would be able to come up with a character in literature or pop-cultural fare who really had no business doing what he or she was doing, but did it faithfully because there was nobody else.

Churchill said “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those others that have been tried.”  Some have adapted that dictum to capitalism.  Well, somebody who suffers from self-doubt almost always feels like the worst person to be doing a particular task, except everybody who isn’t doing it.  And that can be a lot of people.

Surely, in carpentry, somebody must know how to frame this roofing system by the book, so I wouldn’t have to figure it out on the fly and maybe get it wrong.  In editing, somebody must have a better mastery of the subject matter and formatting who wouldn’t miss so much.  In politics, somebody must have the temperament not to drive people away.  If only that person would step forward, I’d step aside.

I look at certain challenges in my life — whether having to do with making something work around the house or steering a child away from an unhealthy decision or persuading an apathetic electorate to force change in some policy — and I just don’t see the solution.  Maybe I should, but I don’t.  Somebody else would, probably, but he or she isn’t here, and I don’t even know how to find that person to ask advice.  (That’s how ill-suited I am to the challenge.)

Still, I was raised with the belief that one simply can’t walk away from problems that can harm others if left unsolved.  So, I’ll come up with some sort of plan to try, but I don’t know if it’ll work.  Not really.  And not knowing whether I’m making progress or running in circles, it’s so easy to turn to completely inconsequential distractions, like a movie I’ve seen before, or to trick myself into drinking enough that I have no choice but to put the problem down for a while.  Boy, the shade under that tree outside looks inviting.  It’s been too long since I sat with my back against a tree and played around with a guitar.  If this problem is important, somebody else will come along and solve it, and I’ve had one strong ale too many to be of much help, anyway.

So… liberty.

It’s all well and good to acknowledge that the free market helps people to put the right price on the value of a thing.  It’s absolutely true that established interests can capture government and use its power to inhibit competition, even under the guise of giving people opportunity.  Yes, rather than making it illegal to pay people what their work might be worth if that value falls under an arbitrary minimum wage, we should address income problems by expanding opportunity.  In that way, employers really will have to pay people what they’re worth — whether the amount is lower than what a union-backed progressive politician might want or whether it’s higher than what the employer might prefer.

All of this is true.  No government program can have a greater influence on a carpenter’s salary, for example, than his ability to strike out on his own and compete with his boss.  Even if only one out of every 50 employees is interested in running a business, that still leaves two businesses competing for those 50 employees’ time.

But if the one doesn’t step forward despite the opportunity, the theory falls apart… at least for that group of 50.  Liberty as an economic strategy requires so many rolls of the dice.  Therefore, a healthy, humane philosophy has to have something for those who just don’t see the solution to their problems and aren’t the sorts of people to keep charging at a wall.  The fact that their barriers might be psychological hangups like self-doubt or a lazy upbringing doesn’t make those barriers less real than a lack of capital to invest or a regulation to overcome.

On the other hand, one major difference between psychological barriers and financial ones is that they can’t be overcome for us.  Create a program that gives out money, and the capital and regulatory hurdles will be overcome, but the self-doubt and laziness will only be reinforced.

In other words, the free market is the worst economic approach, except for all of the others.  What we too often don’t see is that it isn’t the solution.  The solution is people helping people through their ordinary relationships and by taking an interest in folks because nobody else has.  (Taking an interest and actually helping, not trying to get government to force other people to help.)

Me, I’m the last person anybody should want doing that, so please… after you.

  • ShannonEntropy

    Careful, Justin…. you are skating dangerously close to the one sin we Roman Catholics have decreed unforgivable: Despair

    No doubt a great deal of your distress is from living as a conservative in one of the most liberal States in America. I moved to Li’l Rhody from ultra-red-neck South Carolina in 1982 and then spent the next 24 yrs on the faculty of Brown University — albeit in a STEM field — so I know exactly what yer going through

    I think Rhett & Yours Truly would agree yer doing a great job here so have another brewski and keep up the good work !!

    As for “A better writer, for example, would be able to come up with a character in literature or pop-cultural fare who really had no business doing what he or she was doing, but did it faithfully because there was nobody
    else.” … may I nominate T E Lawrence a/k/a ‘Lawrence of Arabia’

    This guy was an archaeologist with absolutely zero military training who not only rose to the rank of Full Colonel in the BEF during WW I but also led a rag-tag irregular force of Arab tribes to capture the Turkish port of Aqaba in one the biggest morale-boosting victories of that war, not to mention dozens of other military & diplomatic exploits

    ‘Ned’ as his friends called him is my all-time Hero and I use that word in the classic sense, not as it’s used today after modern “hero inflation”, where every public safety employee is called a ‘hero’ for doing the job they were paid to do

    Recommend beach reading for you this summer =►

    • Rhett Hardwick

      Entropy, might enjoy Fred Reed’s column on “Rednecks”

    • Rhett Hardwick

      It has been a while since I read the “Seven Pillars”. It did disturb me that Florence seemed to enjoy his treatment by the Turks. This is glossed over in the movie with a scene where his nipples are twisted, and he is then called to the Commander’s office for an unstated purpose. Perhaps I am a homophobe. It also troubled me that “Chinese” Gordon seems to have been a pederast. This is covered in the movie by assigning him a 5 year old “girlfriend”.

      “Still, I was raised with the belief that one simply can’t walk away from problems that can harm others if left unsolved.” Some would call this compassion, I would think it “honor”. Seeing an opportunity to be of service, and then ignoring it, is selfishness.

      I am reminded of an incident this morning. I took my rowing shell out for a “spin” around a local lake, a pond really. One of the residents has a 23 foot inboard, with which he roars up and down the pond. This creates a substantial wake, to me, the wake is predatory. His gray hair indicates he is old enough to know better. Having done this before, I have had opportunity to note that he looks in the opposite direction, and doesn’t “see me”. This has always struck me as the ultimate in “I got mine”.

      Justin, good job. Do not concern yourself with a lack of acclaim from your peers. You know a man by the nature of his enemies.

      • ShannonEntropy

        I’ve been a big fan of Fred Reed for quite a while now & have his site bookmarked

        As for TEL there is little doubt that he was gay and he even obliquely talks about it in 7PoW. Heck, even the dedicating poem to “S.A.” talks about “[sweeping] tides of men into my arms”

        … but none of that detracts from the magnificence of his achievements

        There are many great bios of TEL… my wife even bought me a 1st Edition of the very first one for Father’s Day this year: Robt Graves’ Lawrence & the Arabian Adventure, written a decade before he died by a friend of his [ The Cranston Public Library by Garden City has a copy of the 2nd Ed. ]

        And the only “Chinese Gordon” I know of was a British General who died in 1885. TEL was born in 1888 — on my son’s birthday, Aug 16th

        • Rhett Hardwick

          “the only “Chinese Gordon” I know of was a British General who died in 1885.”
          The same, made famous by his leading the armies of the Emperor of China. Perhaps most famous for his defense of Khartoum and his death at the hands of the Mahdi.

          • ShannonEntropy

            Sorry… given the context I thought you were referring to the movie LoA. It struck me as odd that you mentioned a “5 yr old girlfriend” cuz there are NO — zero / zip / nada — female characters in the flick

            Re: your unfortunate “wake incident” while kayaking: there is a large sub-set of power-boaters who all they know is “Turn the key and GO!”

            It’s almost enough to make me as depressed as Justin was when started this thread… but from his posts supra apparently he has shaken off his funk

          • Rhett Hardwick

            I perhaps should get a kayak. What I use is a “shell”. A foot wide, 27 feet long with perhaps 3 inches of freeboard. If a good wake catches me from the side, I’m going for a swim. Somewhere, I have a pair of pontoons; think “training wheels”. Perhaps that is the answer.

            History seems to indicate that the British Empire depended on pederasts and catamites for it’s expansion. Since such proclivities were unmentionable, much is conjecture. Some blame the “public school” system. Some, like Cecil Rhodes, began as “remittance men”. Their families agreed to support them, as long as they stayed away.