by Sydney Williams
“In this world, nothing is certain, except death and taxes:” A line usually attributed to Benjamin Franklin and with which it is difficult to argue; though I can state categorically that I am certainly the son of my mother. On the other hand, certainty in opinions is usually associated with a mule-like stubbornness, or unquestioning obeisance – neither a characteristic we would like to think of as being ours – but ones common among the political and pontificating classes, the latter of which I admit to being a member. Curiosity, openness and skepticism are as proper antonyms for certainty as uncertainty.
“We live in uncertain times…” is a quote from W. Somerset Maugham’s 1938 autobiography, The Summing Up, and has become boringly ubiquitous. Mr. Maugham likely got the idea from the old Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times,” with “interesting times” being a euphemism for war. We certainly live in an interesting time. The world is dangerous, manifestly more so than it was six years ago when our newly elected President was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, not for what he had done, but for what the committee was certain he would do. That Mr. Obama has made the world more dangerous adds to uncertainty, raises cynicism and is, in part, responsible for the diminishing trust in our leaders and institutions.
It is interesting to observe how the roles played by certainty and uncertainty have swapped over the past several decades. When I was growing up in the late 1940s and early 1950s most people were certain government could be trusted. After the Soviets detonated their first Atomic Bomb, in the summer of 1948, MAD, or mutually assured destruction, became an unwritten policy for peace. The Cold War was called “cold” for a reason: While there was combat in places like Korea and Vietnam, the two super-powers never militarily confronted one another. Despite having to periodically dive under our school desks, people instinctively felt that commonsense would prevail: that neither country, no matter how heated the dialogue, would be the first to launch Atomic weapons. Both nations had a stake in the world as it was. Polls in 1960 showed that 70% of Americans trusted their government; providing a patina of certainty over what was an uncertain world. Today that patina has been stripped bare, with only 20% of the population trusting government, giving rise to uncertainty. A recent Gallup survey noted that dysfunctional government – not jobs or Islamic terrorism – was the nation’s number one problem.
What made us uncertain, in those far-away days, were mundane factors that today we accept as certainties – like not getting a flat tire on a long drive, how to survive a hot summer’s night when there is no breeze, or whether hot water will flow from the bathtub spigot marked ‘H.’ A small, but significant segment of the population could not be assured of shelter or food. Racial segregation made the lives of African-Americans decidedly uncertain.
Technology was critical in removing many of those uncertainties and for that we owe thanks to the creativity and innovation of the human mind. The Supreme Court and landmark Congressional legislation in the 1950s and ‘60s improved lives for African-Americans and women. And governmental entitlements removed other uncertainties; though there has been a price for the latter – an increased sense of dependency for one. Additionally, in assuming that government will protect us from life’s challenges, we have become less committed to our communities, as Robert Putnam showed in his book Bowling Alone. We have become more self-centered (but not more capable), as can be seen in our love affair with “selfies.” We protect our children against failure by rewarding them for participation, not for victories. We shun responsibility. Dependency has replaced self-reliance.
Ironically, governmental intrusion did not lead to more trust in Washington; but it has generated more certainty on the part of its proponents. The “Life of Julia” was created by those who were certain that what they were doing would be good for the people, but the consequence was less trust in the benevolence of government; so the video was pulled. The same was true of that insufferable man-child, “Pajama Boy,” poster boy for the Affordable Care Act. Trust in government declined as its reach became more pervasive. In part, I suspect, that is because the more important government becomes to the economy, the more vulnerable it is to corruption and crony capitalism. The United Nations, according to a recent article in the New Yorker, estimates that corruption adds a ten percent surcharge to the cost of doing business “in many parts of the world.” That is true for the United States; though perhaps at a lower cost – but perhaps not? According to the World Bank, the U.S. ranks 41st in terms of enforcing contracts and 46th in starting a business. Complexity in regulation and the tax code, which lead directly to crony capitalism and corruption, adds to uncertainty and decreases trust.
Education plays a role. In the past few years, with the cost of education rising and job opportunities declining, STEM programs (the study of science, technology, engineering and math) have become the rage. Politicians on both sides of the aisle are united in attempting to get young people trained in some utilitarian field, to provide some certainty in terms of making a living. Practicality, it is assumed, is more critical to one’s financial success than is the study of dead poets or philosophers. There is some measure of truth in what they say, but the study of philosophy, for example, is not designed to make one a philosopher. It is meant to help conceptualize, to compare and to contrast, to think independently. Writing in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal, Christopher Scalia, a professor at the University of Virginia at Wise, wrote that in terms of unemployment graduates with degrees in the liberal arts were not statistically worse off than those with degrees in mathematics or the sciences. But they have learned something different and important. The professor quoted Thomas Jefferson who understood that a study of the humanities is linked to the vitality of a democratic government and the survival of a free people.
From uncertainty can spring a healthy skepticism, that allows us to question and to grow; or it can generate doubt, which may emasculate experimentation and advancement. Uncertainty that stems from a lack of trust, as regards our government, is damaging, to the nation and to us individually, for it vitiates confidence. We can never banish uncertainty, any more than we can foresee the future. Nor should we want to. While blind certainty in government is the path to despotism, restoring trust in government is a goal worthy of a free people.