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James Madison was a very wise man, but if classical liberals have any failing, it is that we assume that other people are like us, that most people want to be free, that we desire maximized choices.
It is not so.
We flail about when we have too many choices. Offer any child the choice between chocolate and vanilla ice cream, and they make a decision pretty easily. Offer them a choice of dozens of flavors, and the challenge can be so intimidating that they can end up opting to have no ice cream at all! So while we claim to want free choice, most of us really want someone else to make it all simpler.
Behavioral studies have shown us that people consistently prefer predictable (but unremarkable) lives, to lives that may be more dynamic; we even use volatility as a pejorative when discussing the stock market. Our fears, not our dreams, are what guide most of our choices in life.
Mankind consistently seeks limits, either externally or internally imposed. We fear the unknown so much that we tend to embrace anything that promises to reduce uncertainty and quell our fears. It is the intoxicating elixir of modern liberalism.
This is why most societies who try elections for the first time invariably elect strongmen, tyrants. Sure, these larger-than-life tough guys may be bad people, but they seem to know what they are doing, and that gives comfort to the insecure. They make our lives easier by reducing the number of choices, even at the cost of limiting the range of these choices.
This explanation has also historically explained religious faith. Religion quiets the soul in no small part because it offers answers to the Big Questions: “why are we here?” and smaller questions: “How do I find peace?” Every successful religion, whether we would consider that faith to be “true” or not, works in part because it quells the fears that beat in every breast.
People are created insecure, and the natural world does nothing to ease that insecurity by itself, so we find ways of coping. Formal religion is one method, but when people eschew traditional faiths, they seem to invariably turn to placebos – at the minimum reflexive and irrational reliance on habits. Over time, without a religious bulwark, most people will descend still further into superstitions, tribalism, and neo-pagan worship practices like tattooing and recycling – all to limit the choices that modern life has laid before us. In the modern age, the single most popular religion of all, the most consistent way to ease our insecurities by limiting our freedom, is liberal government.
So while it sounds great to blame someone else for what is wrong with our lives, it is rarely accurate to do so. It is we who let our fears limit our choices. But we hate to admit it! When we don’t like how things turn out, we love to blame other people. And then the cycle feeds itself, keeping us in a perpetual state of pickled adolescent immaturity.
My people are no exception. We annually relive the Exodus from Egypt, family by family, year after year – and we have been doing it for well over 3,000 years! Pesach is the annual touchstone for the Jewish people, the single most observed festival of every living Jew.
And yet, as my sons argued during the Seder, it seems that the Jewish people, for over 3000 years, have been getting a basic fact about our slavery in Egypt wrong. And we have done it because, although Jews are incredible change agents everywhere we go, we fall short when it comes to changing ourselves, and especially our victimhood culture.
Who enslaved the Jews? It is a simple, patently stupid question. The Egyptians did, of course. Everyone knows that! The Haggadah tells us so. We were innocent victims, oppressed by a stronger nation that believed that Might Makes Right.
But my sons pointed out that this “obvious” answer is entirely unsupported by the Torah itself. Not only does it lack support, but the Torah gives us another explanation entirely. Nowhere does it say that the Egyptians enslaved the Jews. Sure, they assigned us taskmasters, ramped up the demands, and tried to kill our newborns. But the Egyptians did not enslave us in the first place.
Here’s the punchline: The Jews enslaved themselves.
After their father, Jacob, died, the brothers were panicked, and they begged for Joseph’s forgiveness. But they also went one step too far:
“[Joseph’s brothers] went and fell down before his face, and they said “Behold we are your servants.” (Gen. 50:18 [the Hebrew word for “servant” and “slave” are identical])
The Jewish people enslaved themselves to the senior administrator of the kingdom of Egypt. And they did so for reasons that are entirely familiar to frustrated modern libertarians: fearful in the face of volatile uncertainty, they opted to restrain their freedoms in exchange for a predictable future.
What does Joseph say in response? He does not say “On the contrary! You are free men!” He does not avow the declaration in any way. Instead, his response is the same as that of every well-meaning welfare state big government bureaucrat ever since:
“Have no fear… I will sustain you and your little ones.” (Gen. 50:19,21)
In other words, Joseph could be trusted, because he was as good as an angel. We don’t need to worry about our freedoms when we are governed by angels! Alas, as James Madison put it, “If angels were to govern men, [no] controls on government would be necessary.” Joseph may have been a wonderful man; but the enslavement and welfare dependence of the Jewish people, once the first step down that slippery slope had been taken, had an inevitable conclusion: the complete elimination of the Jewish people. The Road to Serfdom is the easy path and it is almost always a one-way trip. Only direct divine intervention saved us just before the end.
But even though G-d delivered us from Egypt, we never quite grew out of the classic Jewish slave and ghetto mentality. Like Joseph’s brothers, we are too quick to shed the robes of freedom when offered the chance to wallow in perpetual victimhood, too quick to prefer dependable servitude over volatile freedom. By surrendering ourselves to Joseph, we opened the door to walking away from independence and free will, and we became capable only of biological multiplication and hard labor for a capricious overlord.
But we must never forget: we did this to ourselves. And while G-d took us out of Egypt, something for which there is no limit to the gratitude we should show, He did not do it just because He wanted us to be grateful: He did it so that we could make our lives productive and creative, to partner with G-d to ignite and spread holiness throughout the world.
And we work hard at it, handicapped because too rarely do we remember that we have to also heal ourselves, to realize that we are almost always our own worst enemies. External threats to the Jewish people, in Egypt and throughout time, are rarely diseases in their own right: they are symptoms of our own cowardice, unwillingness to tackle the flaws in ourselves and in the world for which we were given responsibility.
In order to grow, to become better and more complete people, we have to conquer our fears. In order to spread freedom, we need people to seek bravery, to eschew “safety.” We must stop blaming other people, and playing the Victim Identity Game. In order to grow relationships and holiness with mankind and with G-d, we need to confront the terrifying insecurities that define our human existence.
Just like the preservation of freedom, conquest over fear is a neverending battle. The shared reward is the sweetest thing of all: satisfaction that we have not squandered the opportunities that lie before us, that we have lived our lives to the fullest.