Sunday, December 24, 2006

The End

In Part I I put forth the theory that Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events was a libertarian tale and proceeded to explain that the only way that you could reach that conclusion after reading the first twelve books was to succumb to confirmation bias.

Warning: spoilers ahead.

Hopefully I can now convince you that the thirteenth and final book, The End, reaches a libertarian conclusion, one that illustrates, quite clearly, my perspective of the world.

The story starts as the children are throw onto a solitary island after being shipwrecked with their arch nemesis Count Olaf. Islanders find the quartet and for the very first time in the Baudelaire's lives someone sees Count Olaf for what he is - a scoundrel. They tell him that he isn't welcome and bring the children back to their village where they meet Ishmael.

At the beginning of the series everything was black and white. Villains were villainous; heroes are noble with little room for grays. As the series progress and the children mature they are faced with those shades of gray - they face moral dilemmas where they must do evil in order to achieve their ends.

Just as they begin to understand that the world is not black and white Ishmael, the facilitator, puts everything back into good and evil.

Ishmael is the benevolent dictator, his only goal is to create a safe place for his people. He doesn't force anyone to do anything, but he makes it clear where he stands and the islanders invariably agree. In his attempt to keep everyone safe all individuality is lost. Everyone wears white robes, eats bland food and drinks coconut cordials, an opiate to keep them lethargic and compliant. A safe place, to be sure, but boring nonetheless.

The Baudelaire children soon discover that Ishmael doesn't lead the simple life that he imposes on everyone else. He has a secret cache of books, food and luxuries that everyone else is protected from.

The children accuse Ishmael of abusing his power:

"...abridging the freedom of expression and the free exercise thereof is [not] the proper way to run a community ... You want everyone to lead a simple, safe life--everyone except yourself."

The reply is the standard statist response:
No one should lead the life I lead ... I've read more of the world's treacherous history than almost anyone, and as one of my colleagues once said, this history is indeed little more than the register of crimes, follies , and misfortunes of mankind.

Don't you see? ... I'm not just the island's facilitator. I'm the island's parent. I keep this library far away from the people under my care, so that they will never be disturbed by the world's terrible secrets.
The children are then given a choice - live a safe life and abandon everything that they enjoy - all that makes them individuals, or live a life of uncertainty and danger - the same life they have been living for the past twelve books.

This is Virginia Postrel's between stasis and dynamism A world that is controlled without passion vs a world of unknowns and passion and discovery.

The children tell themselves that they should pick the safe life, but find they cannot make the sacrifices necessary to choose that path. They use their gifts as individuals to try and save themselves and their friend disobeying their benevolent dictator.

In the end their choice is justified as the rest of the islanders follow Ishmael to their likely deaths terrified of the prospects of striking out on their own.

The lessons of this tale are clear - the world is a terrible, nasty, miserable place - but if you entrust your well being to others you will surely be disappointed. Not even the benevolent dictator can keep the world at bay and trouble invariably befalls the people. The only difference between the 'safe world' and the real world is that when you depend on someone else to protect you, you lose all ability to protect yourself; when your protector fails you are lost.

That is the libertarian theme that speaks to me. The world is not an orderly place, by trying to force order upon it much is lost in the way of individualism but nothing is gained because the order maker (the government) invariably fails and when it does those most in need of help no longer know how to take care of themselves.

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