from the desk of H. Bowie...

desktop with typewriter


In Defense of Balance

Rocks balancing on a see-saw
image credit: iStock/malerapaso

When I created The Practical Utopian, I based it on a fundamental set of beliefs, divided up into principles and values. And the very first value, the one given preeminent position, is balance.

I believe in striving for balance between competing concerns. Although other values are important, I have no desire to establish any one of them as fundamentally absolute.

Let me give you an example of what I mean by striving for balance between competing concerns.

Let’s take two big ideas: liberty and society. We all want freedom. I know I do. And yet, if you put me on a helicopter, and then dropped me off somewhere in the middle of the wilderness, I would have all the liberty in the world – but I would gladly relinquish some of that freedom as the price for rejoining human society.

Human life is like that. It’s a complex undertaking. Take the device you’re reading this on. Odds are that its size is important to you, as well as its price, as well as its power and capability. But you undoubtedly ended up with something that struck an appropriate balance between these competing concerns, based on trade-off analysis done by the device designers, as well as your own personal preferences when it came time to make a buying decision. For portable devices, we’d all like the battery to last a week without needing to be charged, but if that means we’ll need a cart to roll the battery around, then we will have gone too far in one direction: hence the importance of balance.

Unfortunately, as important as it is, balance often has three strikes against it.

  1. Balance can be really hard. Whether we’re talking about a seesaw, the scales of justice, or a house of cards, it’s usually a lot easier to tip things over in one direction than it is to find and maintain a stable balance between opposing forces.
  2. From a spectator’s perspective, balance is usually boring, because it lacks the drama of swinging from one extreme to another.
  3. Balance can be hard to defend. Those who speak in its favor can be easily accused of being inconsistent, wishy-washy, weak-willed, or fuzzy-minded – or all four at once, on a particularly bad day.

Sadly for all of us, I think, the cause of balance has fallen on hard times of late. All three of the factors working against it seem to be operating in full force on a daily basis, no matter where we look. Donors and sponsors demand unwavering allegiance to one fundamentalist extreme or the other, whether it’s free market capitalism or the right to bear arms. News media of all stripes and persuasions realize that balance doesn’t sell newspapers or capture eyeballs, and so we are subjected to a constant barrage of one extreme or another, no matter which channel we turn to. And the same people who insisted for years on a repeal of ObamaCare, it turns out, have no idea in their simple heads about what would constitute a suitable replacement.

And so we find ourselves in times where it is seemingly impossible to get elected without going to one extreme or the other, even though, paradoxically, it is also impossible to actually govern without striking an appropriate balance between these same extremes.

Hopefully our politicians will figure this out before long. Right now they mostly don’t seem to get it. The most recent elections in Great Britain are a good example. Because, as it turns out, even though a majority of the voters may plop down one way or the other in any particular election, that doesn’t mean that, as a whole, they want a sharp turn in the course of their affairs. They’re just trying to shift the balance in one direction or the other. So as soon as the most recent victors start to act as if they had a mandate for radical change, they find their electorate is now pushing in the other direction, seeking once again to achieve that elusive balance. Sooner rather than later, one hopes, they will realize there is a sound reason why the adjective “unbalanced” is generally a pejorative to be avoided. Because, as Barry Goldwater discovered, even though extremism in defense of liberty may not be categorized as a vice, neither is it a reliable way to get elected.

The American founding fathers, of course, were great believers in balance. This is why they cunningly fashioned a balance of power between the executive, judicial and legislative branches, between the federal government and the states, between the House of Representatives and the Senate, between the powers of government and the rights of individuals. Such a delicate balance was not easy to work out. At one point, in fact, Benjamin Franklin exclaimed that, “Every Body cries, a Union is absolutely necessary, but when they come to the Manner and Form of the Union, their weak Noddles are perfectly distracted.” But we all benefit daily from this democratic house of cards that they were ultimately able to contrive and which we, so far, have been able to keep standing.

So what can we do to bring the value of balance back to the forefront of our shared consciousness? Just this: speak up for it; defend it; demand it from our reporters and our leaders; cultivate it, every chance we get.

And remember always that this need to speak out in defense of balance is nothing new. After all, Irish poet William Butler Yeats wrote nearly a century ago:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold…
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

But although the structure seems to waver at times, it has not yet collapsed, and the centre is still there, waiting for us to make our way back to it. All it takes are valiant men and women speaking out for it, doing the hard but rewarding work necessary to find it, in every sphere of our lives. Nothing less is acceptable. Because, in the end, nothing of lasting value really works without it.

June 12, 2017