How a Perimeter Fence Dooms Elites Within to Impossible Tasks, Exhaustion

Consider a society that erects a figurative, narrow perimeter fence, one that is meant to keep unwanted influences & people out, and desirable influences & people safely within.

The key characteristic of that barrier is that all that exists outside is presumed hostile: the fence sets the boundary between what’s acceptable and what’s not.

That’s a problem, as most things, people, or situations are likely to be on the other side of a narrow fence. So one commits, in this way, to shielding against, to balancing against, vast majorities of people or ideas outside. That is, to put it mildly, a big task (seemingly close, in effect, to a supertask).

That’s not, however, how nations actually balance against external forces – they don’t balance against the power from sheer size, number, etc., but against threatening power. (This is Stephen Walt’s credible contention, for example, in Alliance Formation and the Balance of World Power.)

There’s some discernment in balancing against threatening power: one recognizes from among all the world beyond particular dangers against which one should balance (or for the less resolute, tragically, appease).

A narrow & impermeable perimeter fence, as was erected in Puritan culture, takes away this selection: what’s outside is to be combatted, or at least worried over until combat seems necessary. That’s that, so to speak.

That’s also nuttily wasteful, and inevitably futile. Small groups inclined to erect a narrow fence (and all groups are relatively small compared to the world) would lock themselves into perpetual strife with everything beyond. Talk about enervating and debilitating: that’s a recipe for hothouse tension, echo-chamber confusion, and early exhaustion.  It leads to the problem of thinking that a contention that works well in a small group will work well universally.  Someone will say something, convinced it’s a winning claim, then drop the mic and walk way satisfied.  There are few winning claims – one does better to begin each day, and each encounter, as a dark-horse underdog.

Given the choice between sitting at a table within a perimeter fence, or standing in a courtyard outside of it, the courtyard is easily the better option. It’s better culturally (as it’s more in line with America’s broad, cosmopolitan free-market outlook) and practically (as that outlook assures access to vast resources & ideas those within the perimeter fence deny themselves).

Measuring the strength of a position often comes down to asking whether one would trade for another position.

There may be reasons to choose the table within over the courtyard without, but there is not a single compelling reason for that choice: greater strength of thought and opportunity lies outside, not inside.