In The Constitution of Liberty, F. A. Hayek writes, “Man learns by the disappointment of expectations.” Some of us, Hayek could have added, resist learning.
Despite having their expectations constantly dashed, the characters on the long-running comedy Seinfeld held onto grievances and never learned. Holding onto grievances leaves little space in our minds to commit to the timeless values that facilitate human cooperation.
In the Season 8 episode, “Bizarro Jerry,” Elaine has hung out with doppelgangers of Jerry, George, and Kramer. She explains to Jerry why she has made these new friends:
Elaine: “Kevin and his friends are nice people. They do good things. They read.”
Jerry: “I read.”
Elaine: “Books, Jerry.”
Jerry: “Oh, big deal.”
Elaine: “I can’t spend the rest of my life coming into this stinking apartment every ten minutes to pour over the excruciating minutiae of every single daily event.”
The minutiae that Elaine refers to is the endless recital of petty resentments and grievances.
The scene fades out as Elaine leaves with Jerry protesting, “Why not? Like yesterday, I went to the bank to make a deposit, and the teller gave me this look.”
How much am I getting is what the characters focus on? Can I give even less and still get more is the hidden mindset the characters share.
A mindset of looking for grievances stopped the characters from building meaningful lives. For one episode, Elaine considered a better way; she had a temporary change of heart, but then the force field of her old habits was too strong.
On Seinfeld, each episode is filled with the most minute, yet cherished, grievances. A grievance might begin with a slight twinge of annoyance and then morph into a full-blown grievance. If we didn’t recognize our own behavior, however exaggerated by the characters, the show wouldn’t be as funny and timeless as it is.
So what, you might say, I don’t read the AIER for television reviews and self-help.
What if it turns out our grievances are setting the stage for socialism and the destruction of liberty?
Perhaps you are getting a bit exasperated. You might be thinking, Come on, my grievances are not against society. My grievances are against people in my life, and if I told you my story, I’m sure you would agree I am justified.
Holding onto grievances, we build our self-concept around being against something — a person, a group, or another nation. Collectively, our grievances can be exploited to create tribal hatred. Such hatred can last for centuries.
When Yale law professor Amy Chua wrote, “Vote-seeking demagogues find that the best way to mobilize popular support is not by offering rational policy proposals but by appealing to ethnic identity, stoking historical grievances, and exploiting group fear and anger,” she was referring to the “developing world.” What she described is increasingly becoming our political experience in the United States.
The prolific, humorous, insightful social critic Dr. Anthony Daniels writes under the pseudonym Theodore Dalrymple. In his book The Wilder Shores of Marx, he described attending the 1989 World Festival of Youth and Students in Pyongyang, North Korea. Among the thousands of people gathered there, almost everyone had a grievance, and they were a nasty bunch:
To be the member of a victimised group was a vocation and destiny that obviated the need for consideration of others. Persecution, real or imagined, was sufficient warrant for the rightness of their behaviour. The trouble was, of course, that the majority of the delegates considered themselves persecuted, whether as women, members of splinter communist parties, vegetarians, homosexuals, Irish by descent, proletarians, immigrants, or any combination of these. Hence almost everyone acted more-persecuted-than-thou.
Dalrymple had to apologize for being a mere individual and not having a grievance:
I soon found myself having to explain, somewhat shamefacedly, that I represented no one but myself: to be a mere individual when everyone else represented, or claimed to represent, the downtrodden, the disadvantaged or the dispossessed, was tantamount to class treachery. In the hall, the pleasures of grievance, past, present and to come, flourished abundantly.
Fast forward 30 years, and as Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay wrote in their book Cynical Theories, the contemporary social justice movement “is a worldview that centers social and cultural grievances and aims to make everything into a zero-sum political struggle revolving around identity markers like race, sex, gender, sexuality, and many others.”
Today’s college students don’t have to attend a Soviet-era sponsored conference of grievances in North Korea. To use Seinfeld terminology, every day on college campuses is Festivus, with its centerpiece of the airing of grievances.
The result is an ongoing cycle of fighting. Pluckrose and Lindsay observed, “From the outside, the intersectional approach seems grating, fractious, and incomprehensible. It appears to operate like a kind of circular firing squad, continually undermining itself over petty differences and grievances.”
In his 1976 lecture, “Socialism and Science,” Hayek argued that socialism requires a “government with unlimited powers” to give groups with grievances what they think “they are entitled to.” Politicians then are expected to “work to redress every imagined grievance which it has power to redress, however little justified the claim may be.” [emphasis added].
Hayek explained that grievances can never be fully satisfied. In the socialist battle over who gets what, the distribution of incomes is determined by “the power of those persons or groups to extort special benefits from the government.” The result is that merit is not a consideration.
Hayek gave this powerful warning: A “decent society” cannot survive “unless people learn to accept that many of their grievances are unjustified, and give them no claims on others.” [emphasis added].
Even with good intentions, “the most idealistic among the socialists will be forced to destroy democracy to serve their idealistic socialist vision of the future.” And then, unable to deliver on “a responsibility it cannot discharge,” an authoritarian government will be forced to use “the knout [whip] and the machine-gun” on those with grievances.
Nobel laureate in literature Mario Vargas Llosa, in his book The Call of the Tribe, observed, “Civilization is born from the need of human beings to turn to others to satisfy their needs.” Llosa learned through his study of Adam Smith and F. A. Hayek that classical liberalism was the best way to facilitate human cooperation and the satisfaction of our most urgent needs. Llosa also discovered that there was more to liberalism than free markets:
[C]ontrary to what people determined to reduce liberalism to an economic formula of free markets, fair rules, low tariffs, controlled public spending, and privatization of companies suppose—liberalism is above all an attitude toward life and society based on tolerance and respect, a love for culture, a desire to coexist with others and a firm defense of freedom as a supreme value.
Human flourishing requires our attention to be for something—a better life for ourselves, our children, and others—not against something or someone.
Notice when you are holding onto a grievance. How many minor and major irritations and grievances occupy your thinking throughout the day? What do we sacrifice when our attention is centered on grievances? Heed Hayek’s warning: A “decent society” cannot survive when a critical mass of people is focused on grievances. Living for grievances means risking our humanity and liberty.