Recently, the New Yorker had a feature article on Aaron Swartz, which featured some excerpts from his writing and interviews with people close to him.  The article/profile was both interesting and frightening, and extraordinarily sad, because it revealed a brilliant young man who never grew up, never truly understood society – any society – and, because he couldn’t understand it, found himself in a position, compounded by illness, where he simply could not cope.  What came through most clearly to me, although this was certainly not emphasized by the writer or by any of those who were interviewed, was the fact that Swartz had absolutely no understanding that society, or any organization or relationship, has limits.

He made a great deal of money very young, but failed to understand that, for most people, making money is anything but easy.  He quit jobs because he didn’t want to put up with the regimentation and requirements.  He got involved in the whole issue of copyright because he didn’t believe in limits… and then, according to the article, had actually abandoned much of that fight when it came back to bite him.

The plain truth of the matter is that any relationship, any organization, any society, any government – in fact anything that goes beyond a single isolated entity – has limits, and the more complicated the organization or group, the more limits that are required for it to function. Children who do not learn this young will always have problems; adults who have not learned this will either be hermits or anti-social outcasts, usually verging on having trouble with others and the law. As the old saying goes, your freedom stops short of hitting my nose… one of the most basic of limits.

Various societies have differing limits, and differing ways of imposing and enforcing those limits, but they have limits. Social and government conflicts are always about the types of limits, their structure, enforcement, and various other details, but not about the fact that limits are necessary.  Even extremists, such as “gun rights” types, aren’t arguing for no societal limits at all – they just don’t want limits over weapons, but most of them, I suspect, would have problems if all limits on everything were removed.  They just want a different set of limits. The same is true of religious extremists, extreme feminists, environmentalists, zealous developers, etc.

In turn, nature or the environment imposes limits.  Air-breathing creatures are not going to evolve in airless environments.  If you don’t eat, sooner or later you’re going to die.  Biology imposes limits.  Most human beings less than six feet tall are going to have a hard time being professional basketball players because smaller stature imposes limits, as does a lack of raw athletic ability.

Yet… in today’s western societies, particularly in the United States, there is less and less recognition of limits, and more and more of an attitude that anyone can do anything, especially in parenting and education.  Limits exist; saying that they don’t or acting as if they don’t is only a recipe for personal and societal disaster.  That doesn’t mean limits preclude success; it does mean that one has to understand where the limits exist and where they don’t, both in personal and in societal terms, and at times, how to find another way to success.

And that’s something that Aaron Swartz  didn’t understand that and too many people, especially young people these days, also don’t seem to understand, perhaps because too many of their parents don’t either.


7 thoughts on “Limits”

  1. Hi Lee.

    Libertarianism strikes me as a reaction against these limits. Why should I be restricted in what I do? Why do I have to pay minimum wage, sick time, et cetera.

    It is, as you say, a recipe for disaster.

    1. What too many Libertarians either cannot recognize or do not wish to recognize is that the limits imposed by government are an attempt by society to avoid or transcend the arbitrary limits of anarchy or the absolute power of the strongest.

  2. R. Hamilton says:

    Yes, there are limits, and too many people that have failed to recognize the need for them. But isn’t that because individual responsibility has been de-emphasized in favor of collectivism?

    People that expect THEY will take care of their relatives or neighbors rather than the state, will be well aware of limits without having them imposed by external authority.

  3. Tim says:

    Several years ago, I volunteered to help with a youth program – 8 to 11s. We had to set some ground rules and drafted these. One of us (not me) asked whether we should ask the youngsters to create a set of draft rules as well. Sounded good, so we did.

    You would not imagine how draconian these were. Our rules were set by ‘political correctness’ etc. considerations etc. Their rules were unaware of what society demands nowadays. They wanted limits with a capital ‘L’ and which they insisted we policed!

    A little eye-opening to say the least.

  4. Brian says:

    Yes, limits exist. Great things, especially in science, have come from pushing beyond the limits. Great failures have resulted, too. The desire to push beyond the limits still exists today and anyone can be the hero when it all works for the best. When the result is failure or those who set the limits push back–hard–Aaron Swartz is a good example of the individual’s unwillingness or inability to accept responsibility for what they’ve done. This is what the education system, for example, has taught them: they are rewarded for effort not results. In other words, as long as the student tries hard their functional illiteracy is of no consequence.

  5. Therman says:

    I don’t fully understand your characterization of ‘gun rights types’ as extremists. Do you mean that anyone who believes that the 2nd Amendment guarantees the right to own small arms without undue hindrance is an extremist? I also don’t believe that gun rights advocates are so much looking for a different set of limits but rather want to ensure that they have a say in what limits are set.

    1. I was referring to the most extreme types of “gun rights” activists and making pretty much the same point you just made. Even the most extreme gun rights types [well, there are always exceptions, but most of them] want some societal limits, perhaps just not on firearms.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *