My title today: “Ma non troppo,” is an Italian musical term typically affixed to the composer’s direction to the player as to the tempo or how briskly or languorously the piece is to be played; as in “allegro, ma non troppo” or “lively, but not too much.” It’s a delightful phrase with useful application far beyond the recital hall: telling me not to get carried away; to be focused on my target, but to remain conscious of my context at the same time.
There is much to be said for capitalism, socialism, individualism, cohesive group identification, social justice, rule of law, democracy, governmental effectiveness, national security, individual rights, promoting moral standards at home and abroad, fiscal rectitude, self-defense, respect for authority, a sense of aspiration, incrementalism, liberty, equality, fraternity, a responsibility for the future, a responsibility to the past, human rights, communal responsibilities, faith, science, basic quality of life, environmentalism and, indeed, hope [did I leave anything out?].
All are good, but “ma non troppo.”
I’ve found that it’s a good practice when in a confrontational situation to try to construct a plausible rationale and to identify the omissions/blind spots for each side: Landlords and tenants, Palestinians and Israelis, advocates for a universal basic income and advocates for lower taxes, those who want to choose gender identities different from traditional appearances and those who have embedded decades of habit in reacting to others by those appearances, etc., etc.
I’ve found it’s a good practice not to presume malicious or insulting intent. Not there isn’t often reason for such a belief, but to presume it without assessment doesn’t generally get me where I want to go. Indeed, I suspect that well over ninety five percent of what’s bad in the world is due to negligence, loss of attention and (especially) incompetence; evil and malice are pretty rare.
I’ve found that binary thinking, simplistic categorization, painting people and ideas as either black or white—period—is usually laziness, arrogance, blindness, or anger on my part.
I’ve found that being a victim of some crime or evil doesn’t make a person incapable of criminal or other evil actions and to merely recite their victimhood as a justification rather than assessing their own actions is disingenuous.
One of the downsides of despotism/authoritarianism is that such regimes’ insecurity/arrogance usually means that they can’t tolerate consideration of alternatives or constraints or balance. Lenin found this out in the early 1920s when, despite the then-new triumph of Marxist doctrine, it was necessary to carve out market-oriented exceptions if people were to be fed. Mao didn’t learn the lesson and millions starved in China in the 1960s.
Unbridled [fill-in-the-blank with any of the items from the list in the third paragraph] rarely works. This is mostly due to the inherent distance from theory to practice and the complexities of having lots of people with different views and priorities living together. Liberty and initiative have brought many benefits to the modern world, but we read every day about the excesses of 21C oligarchs/billionaires who throw lavish parties while millions starve. Each is its own mini, privatized version of a self-serving authoritarian regime. Socialism for the public good is noble, too; but is also subject to corruption, arrogance, and bureaucracy.
One of my favorite examples has to do with the level of taxation on the rich. Any attempt to raise funds for public benefits is met with pained cries of those who insist that a heavier tax burden will suppress investment and initiative, that entrepreneurs will be deterred because they won’t be able to make as much money and society will suffer the loss of innovation and competition. Yet few entrepreneurs I know or know of would work less hard due to a higher tax rate. They’re motivated by their own ideas, their own energy, and their own drive for recognition and success. They “keep score” with money, to be sure; but if a steeper tax bill meant that all their competitors also ended up with a bit lower net worth, the rankings would still be the same. So, capitalism…sure, but ma non troppo.
Self-defense is another example. The doctrine that a person’s home is their “castle,” defensible with weapons is a plausible theory of criminal defense. Pushing that idea out into the streets via the “stand your ground” theory might be seen as an incremental extension. But, it runs into other people’s liberty and security.
So, let’s dial it back a bit, let’s not push things to (past?) their logical limits. Let’s leave the last ten percent of every idea off the table. Abortion/women’s rights, capitalism/socialism, free speech, the mare’s nest of the Middle East, US/China, etc., etc.
In a Supreme Court case (whose name I can’t recall) on the question of due process under the 14th Amendment, Justice William Brennan described the decision point as “implicit in the concept of ordered liberty.” It’s not a bad phrase, even if it’s overwhelmingly ambiguous (more a signal of the difficulty of balancing principles than a useful predictor of what the Constitution allowed). Order is good, so is liberty. They often (usually? always?) clash. Ma non troppo is more elegant.