June 28, 2019
We are at once a nation of the rational and irrational. A frustrating yet wonderful combination, we should celebrate this on Independence Day.
At One Day In July, we spend much effort trying to define a rational approach to investing and finance. Somewhere among the tidewater of human emotion and financial reason, an optimal path should exist. The idea tempts us, and we strive for it.
But as a nation, one of our beautiful characteristics is that we allow irrationality. It bolsters our creativity, it rejuvenates us, and indeed it protects us.
June of 1984 found President Reagan above Normandy, probing this question of the Army Rangers who scaled the seaside cliffs forty years earlier:
"Why did you do it? What impelled you to put aside the instinct for self-preservations and risk your lives to take these cliffs? What inspired all the men of the armies that met here? We look at you, and somehow we know the answer. It was faith and belief; it was loyalty and love."
But from the standpoint of an individual soldier, it was not calculated rationality. It also wasn't calculated rationality when Vivian Rothstein started assembling resistance to the Vietnam War in the mid 1960's. Knowing she would be staring down Lyndon Johnson's wrath and Robert McNamara's statistics, knowing few people would ever say thank you to her or hang a medal on her chest, she nevertheless taught America the patriotism of peace.
Turning to the present day, we have to ask ourselves other questions. Why do people give up night after night on local school boards, absent any pay? Why do pastors give up their weekends? Why did black musicians decades ago give up singing and create a new art form in rap? Why do misers give up the pleasures of life, saving every penny, only to give it all away? Why can entrepreneurs see around the corners of the status quo? Why do teenagers so often ignore their parents' advice and end up better off without it?
C.S. Lewis extolled the sometimes irrational freedom of choice in his essay God in the Dock:
“Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. They may be more likely to go to Heaven yet at the same time likelier to make a Hell of earth. This very kindness stings with intolerable insult. To be “cured” against one’s will and cured of states which we may not regard as disease is to be put on a level of those who have not yet reached the age of reason or those who never will; to be classed with infants, imbeciles, and domestic animals.”
Our patchwork of choices is the quilt of freedom. It's not always rational, and it often does not end well. But we have the right to choose our path, and that's worth celebrating.
PBS Interview with Vivian Rothstein
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