Curiosity & American Capitalism
Frank Buckley on Curiosity and Its Twelve Rules for Life
Jordan Peterson took the world by storm with his somber life lessons to YouTube disciples. He codified his appeal for order in his book, “12 Rules for Life.” F.H. Buckley — a Canadian like Peterson — has outlined a very different set of rules in response to what he sees as a shortage of curiosity in the modern age. Curiosity and Its Twelve Rules for Life is the latest book from the wide-ranging author, scholar, GMU law professor, and frequent guest on my show.
Buckley introduces his new “rules” less as a self-help book than an antidote to the somewhat dour outlook of Peterson’s book, which Buckley says was written for people living in cold, harsh northern latitudes (like Canada). He exhorts Americans to think differently — embracing more risk and uncertainty in pursuit of originality, dynamism, and a life well-lived. The first rule? Ditch rules (he says they deprive us of a certain kind of responsibility and moral freedom).
While my previous conversations with Buckley have dealt with concrete topics — from the administrative state, to social media censorship, to “American Secession” — this week we try something different. I will ask Buckley — a Canadian-born American citizen — how curiosity has set the United States apart from the rest of the world in times past. What do we lose when our curiosity fades? Can American capitalism survive if we don’t produce new crops of entrepreneurs with an insatiable curiosity and drive for risk and reward? Perhaps being curious results in less order and more chaos, but it seems to me to be an essential part of being free.
There’s so much that is deeply troubling going on in America today. I’m talking about woke-ism. There is so much fear in our country — fear that our children cannot play alone. Fear of the virus has book publishers refusing to publish certain books. We have TV programs that will not carry certain content. We have Facebook, Twitter, social media, et al. doing their own censorship.
There is polarization.
We have all of these troubling social and political events all happening at the same time and I could not figure out if they were separate or related. Now I have figured it out, thanks to our guest this morning, Frank Buckley. Frank has just written a book which explains these circumstances.
Frank’s book — Curiosity: And Its Twelve Rules for Life — is not a how-to book. It’s not a self-help book. It is a book about curiosity, risk-taking, welcoming the unknown, and how this can make you a better and wiser person.
Frank is a professor at George Mason University’s the Scalia School of Law. He’s a senior editor at the American Spectator and a columnist for The New York Post. Frank, thank you once again for the book, and profound thanks for being on the show this morning.
Thank you for having me. It’s great to be with you again.
The Decline of American Curiosity and the Advent of Wokeism
Tell us why curiosity is so important, and why its decline in American life has been the fertile ground for the problems I mentioned in my introduction.
Two questions. The first is, why is it so important? If you think about any of the people you admire, or any of the great advances in science, business, and literature, there was somebody curious behind it.
The next question is, why is this an issue right now? There has never been, I think, in America, such an effort to silence people, since the witch trials in Salem in the 1600s. We have a culture that tells us not only that you have to stay inside because of COVID, but also that there are thoughts that you have to adopt and if you depart from them, you are racist and you deserve to be censored. That’s going to make people furious. It’s going to make us hemmed in on ourselves. It’ll mean that we won’t want to open up to other people, because that’s dangerous.
In your book, you say that curiosity is asking whether there is something to be learned. Maybe what you will learn is that something is a bad idea. It’s not a question of indoctrination. Learning about something will make you more adverse to bad ideas. Cancel culture, which means preventing individuals or institutions from sharing what they believe to be information and making it available to the public at large, or prevents the information from being available, so we don’t get to decide. In other words, we don’t get to be curious about this idea. Isn’t the cancel culture “anti-curiosity?” If curiosity is what drives human development, is it fair to say that cancel culture and wokeism is as anti-curiosity as a movement can be?
Absolutely right. Aristotle said, “Philosophy begins in wonder.” If you have an attitude of wonder that impels you to follow your curiosity and seek answers, that doesn’t work when the very idea of looking at what’s out there can be dangerous. Curiosity is something you want to avoid in George Orwell’s dystopia 1984. We are closer to 1984 than ever before in this country. That should be especially concerning to people with an interest in liberty. Why? Because if you’re not curious, what’s the point of liberty? If you’re not curious, you can be told what to do and you won’t complain. Liberty won’t matter to you. If liberty does matter to you, it means that you’re willing to strike out and ask questions without having to worry about the consequences. That doesn’t describe America in an age of cancel culture.
I almost universally find someone’s opinion to be kind of boring. Who cares? However, the reason you have formed your opinion is fascinating to me because from that reasoning, I can learn something. If you state an opinion, I will never learn something from it. If you tell me how you got there, that’s persuasive. Without curiosity, you simply accept in a disinterested way what somebody tells you. You just accept it as gospel without any curiosity of how you got there, or more succinctly, why. It is the why that your book is written about.
What I do is I take examples of people who have made great discoveries, who struck on something novel, and left the beaten trail. These stories tell you how you can make yourself curious, or what to do if you want to be a curious person. There are all sorts of different things and different stories. There’s no single way of saying, “Right, I’m going to be curious. That’s it.” No, in fact, there are different ways in which curiosity expresses itself. These are the stories told in the book.
America’s Epidemic of Loneliness
You use a phrase that captured my attention, “the epidemic of loneliness,” in describing American life today. It resonates closely with all of us because of the experience of having governmentally imposed loneliness through the lockdowns during the virus. Tell us about the epidemic of loneliness, and to stick to the medical metaphor, what are the adverse consequences to the individual and society at large?
I was on a call in a program presenting my book and what the people who called in wanted to talk about was not my book, but the January 6 insurrection. I answered it as best as I could. The point is, there are some people for whom the only thing that matters is basically a very narrow set of things that are political issues. If you want to be curious, you have to break out from the received learning, the list of the narrow topics you’re supposed to think about. If you try to do that, you’re going to make people angry. I made people angry. They tweeted afterwards, “why is this person allowed to be on television?” It’s a kind of madness. It produces a real loneliness for the people who are excluded from the conversation.
Even for the kingdom of the blessed, the people with the correct thoughts, if all you have to talk about is basically that one issue, you don’t have to talk. You know what the issue is. You know what the answer is. Let’s talk about friendship for a moment. Why is friendship important? It is a basic human good. If you don’t have it, you’re missing something in life.
The next question is, what is friendship like in America today? Friendship depends upon revealed confidences. You confess something about yourself which might be turned against you. You don’t know. You just toss something out. You let something emerge. It could be good. It could be bad, but it could be conceivably used against you. It’s dangerous to do that now. It’s extremely dangerous to tell a joke. The kinds of friendships you might have made in the past, you don’t make anymore. You get this society, where suicides are up and where a majority of Americans apparently describe themselves as unhappy. That’s not a way to live, but that is America in 2021.
That is driven by fear, and fear and curiosity are adverse to each other. We are taught not to be curious and to be afraid of other points of view. We are taught to avoid them like a communicable disease. If you are on the left, being exposed to any opinions on the right, or vice versa, the fear is you will catch the disease of a broadened worldview. Just like the pandemic kept everybody isolated lest they pass on to one another, the disease, censorship today and wokeism work to quarantine all ideas. This is why a book about curiosity is quite a profound political book as well. You draw parallels in the book to what is going on in political life today. The book, strangely enough, is almost a Trojan horse. It is a political book.
The state of mind that I’m opposing is a form of sociopathology. A sociopath is someone who doesn’t need other people. That is the message we are conveying. In a lot of colleges right now, students are encouraged or told how to report on their professors. An idle comment, a joke, whatever it is, is a thing that can trigger a student and all of a sudden, you’re on charges. Part of the idea of cancel culture is these shifting sets of bad thoughts. What was absolutely innocuous 10 years ago, or 10 months ago, or 10 days ago, can turn out quickly to be absolutely toxic. It’s getting to the point where you want to have your tape recorder on whenever you talk to somebody else, so that you have an accurate record of what was said. If anybody thinks that’s a good idea, then what you’ve done is you’ve described a purely sociopathic society. That’s the idea of the book. The idea of the book is to say, “Stop it.” Get out there and do your thing and enjoy it. Don’t let the censors get you down.
The book is replete with fascinating stories about great men and women over history. I wished every paragraph had a link because each story you told made me curious about the subject of the story. I wanted to immediately put down the book and learn about the subject of that paragraph. If the book were online, I would have found myself deep into the net, to link, because every story you told made me more curious. I became more curious and on and on and on. The book is its own little Wikipedia all wrapped up into one. I thank you for that. It’s a great intellectual exercise. Baked into the meaning of curiosity is openness. Curiosity means you want to learn more stuff. Why would you want to learn? Because perhaps you will become smarter and you might even change your mind about something. You might have thought something was the case, and it’s not. It seems as if people behave it is scary to learn you are wrong about something. The best way to not have that unpleasant feeling that you are wrong is to simply stop learning.
I thought of the U.S. Senate, 100 senators who sit around and try to persuade each other to do or not to do something, which means each senator is trying to persuade his or her colleagues to change their mind. I tried to find one example that I can think about where a senator or perhaps a member of the House changed his or her mind as a direct result of the deliberation of what some other senator said. I couldn’t find any example in my memory of a senator changing their mind; it means that there has never been a deliberation.
I can think of examples where senators change their mind. Civil Rights would be one example. A classic example would be after Pearl Harbor with Senator Vandenberg. He changed his mind because of circumstances, not because he was persuaded by other people. The point is the Senate is not a deliberative body in the sense that parliament in England can be that. There was a classic moment in May 1940, when the Chamberlain government fell and Winston Churchill became prime minister. What got that going was a series of speeches in Parliament where Chamberlain was ripped apart with the resolve that about 70 members of the majority Tory party decided not to support the government. They had been persuaded by a series of devastating speeches. That can happen where there’s real deliberation. Any deliberation in Washington happens off stage. It might happen, but you won’t know about it.
That would mean that what the senate needs is more curiosity. If they were more curious they would operate more in its designed role. Through curiosity and examination, you might change your mind. Is there something about an opinion that can never be changed, or can opinions always be changed with persuasive reasoning?
One reason for such a lack of curiosity is simply partisanship. When you’re taught that you are not only right, but the other side is poisonous, then you have absolutely no responsibility to listen to the other side. In fact, listening to the other side is dangerous. You also have the growth of ideologies. For example, the ideology surrounding the 1619 project of the New York Times, which would have it that we are an irredeemably racist society. An ideology is like a mental shortcut. It’s like a key that’s supposed to unlock all doors. When you buy into an ideology, what you’re doing is you’re avoiding the need to look at conflicting evidence. The great thing about an ideology is it’s like a mental trash folder. It sends contradictory facts into a folder where you don’t have to pay attention to them. A big part of curiosity is curiosity about other people and how they’re affected. If you don’t care about how other people will be affected by policy because you’re a pure idea log, that’s fine, but you’re incurious. I wanted to make the argument that curiosity was the foundation of a good part of our morality because our morality is about how we treat other people and what the consequences are for other people. To think about that, you have to be curious. That’s fundamental to our morality. The deeply incurious person is also a deeply immoral person. That incuriosity is the root of all evil in many ways. There’s also the incuriosity about your own motives. There are all these self righteous people nowadays. It would be good if they had a moment of self reflection, where they thought they might be self deceived. A lot of the angry protests right now, particularly on the left, is from people who really don’t look very carefully into their motives or question their own behaviors. That also is basic to the idea of morality. Again, incuriosity is the root of all evil.
Lack of Curiosity: A Moral Problem?
It seems to me that those who advocate censorship, canceled culture, and polarization demonstrate to me that they are fearful of having their ideas tested by having their subjects being exposed to another point of view because a test on the merits would cause them to lose the argument. Those who censor are afraid.
A lot of moral disagreements are really factual disagreements in disguise. For example, the minimum wage. If people say that we can set a minimum wage and they won’t do anything about unemployment, that comes down to a factual argument. If you have all the facts, if you have all the evidence, then hopefully the moral disagreement would disappear and we’d be on the same page. Refusing to look at the facts as a way of bolstering your own ideology is also an example of incuriosity. This is one of the ways in which morality will be improved with more curiosity.
Curiosity is simply another way of saying to avoid using so-called voting shortcuts. Voting shortcuts are avoiding a deep dive into the issues and aligning with ones respective parties. I will presume, as a shortcut, that if it is a Democrat, more likely than not, I am aligned with that person’s point of view, and he is the better representative for me. When the shortcut eliminates any intellectual activity, that’s like outsourcing your brain to somebody else. How can you have any humaneness if you have outsourced your brain to somebody else?
It’s partly about trying to get to good answers that satisfy people after the facts are weighed. I’m also talking about a sociopathic state where you don’t care about the other person. I guess I’m more concerned about that than even getting the facts right, because we’re in such a sorry place right now in America. Being so quick to label somebody who disagrees with us as a racist or a bigot is purely evil. Only one person in a thousand is a bore. He’s interesting for that reason. What I did in the book is I described a whole bunch of I think really interesting people. When I talk about what made them interesting, they’re interesting because they want to know about other people, or they are creative.
All the things that make you a curious person are things that make you a better person who is more open to other people. That ultimately, is why it matters so much. It’s also at least that you ask the most profound questions of all, which is, why are we here? What’s the point of living? Why should we bother living? Camus said the only philosophical question is suicide. I think he meant curiosity. Why are we at all interested in religion? We’re curious about what happens after death. Pascal said, people who don’t want to ask that question are monsters of curiosity. In other words, the instinct of curiosity underlies our sense of ethics, our sense of religion, and our sense of connectivity to other people. Even people you think you’re in love with, how do you know you’re in love? You’re in love because you’re curious about the other person. When you read stories and novels about couples, and you find that one person is curious about the other, but the other person is not curious about his better half. One person’s in love and not the other person. It’s a test of curiosity.
Your book was a book about political dynamics. It was also a book about interaction among people. If one is curious, it is per se, your recognition that there are other people, as well as ideas, from whom you can learn. In many ways, your book is a sociological statement, as well as a political statement, as well as an intellectual statement about the healthy operation of the mind. So much of policy today and the laws today, and the compulsion imposed by society, so much prevents you from being exposed to ideas. That is so contrary to our founding ethos. We are denying freedom of conscience, which was one of the founding principles of our country.
Conscience refers to more than simply religion. It involves your thoughts about all the different ways of living your life. Sadly, we’ve moved away from that old fashioned liberalism, which was based on tolerance of different kinds of opinions. I also wanted to make the point about risk taking and how that is intrinsically admirable. I tell a story of Jack and the beanstalk, which is really two stories. In one version of a story, this idiot kid trades a cow for a beanstalk. What a dummy. The other version of a story, which is the real one, is that this was a great thing to do. Jack, you got this beanstalk, and you climbed up and there was a pot of gold or whatever up there. The moral of the story is to take risks, particularly for young people. That’s really important. Jack was an entrepreneur and it paid off. Entrepreneurs are the kinds of people who take risks and gamble on uncertainties. The high tech economy is a good example of that. You go back to the late 70s. Nobody at that point knows whether personal computers will take off. Xerox doesn’t think they will. You got this guy called Steve Jobs. He’s away in his basement or his garage with this little box, and he’s got this idea. He has no idea if there’s going to be demand. He has no idea how to fill it if there is a demand. It’s a pure crapshoot. He launched his company called Apple. The securities regulators in Massachusetts said, “No, you can’t sell your shares in Massachusetts, because this is too risky.” They were absolutely right. It was too risky. The regulators didn’t exactly protect the people of Massachusetts with that decision. Every great new exploration discovery, entrepreneurial act of creation begins with the curiosity about the unknown. When I say unknown, it’s not even probabilistic. It’s not like there was this certain probability that Apple would work. No, pure crapshoot. That’s the nature of all of these kinds of really creative, wonderful business decisions. Behind all of that are some really heroic people who are making those kinds of gambles. It might have been an adventure. It might have been the kind of explorer who opened up the West, the first people who reached California. All of these people were entrepreneurs and their way. Behind all of that was this great curiosity, what’s out there?
What’s really strange is that curiosity, that risk taking, is being taught out of younger schoolchildren today, in all of the ways that they are being protected both physically and from other ideas. Protecting somebody from ideas is to sentence them to an intellectual death at an early age. It’s to give them a fourth grade lobotomy by making them afraid of ideas. It’s that fear of risk taking that teaches us a lot about what is going on today. . It explained to me so much of what is happening that I find discouraging and somewhat scary in public life today. Your book is a valuable tool. It is a must read. It is a delight. Frank, thank you so much for the book. Frank has written Curiosity: And Its Twelve Rules for Life, a must read if you’ve enjoyed this morning’s interview.
- Did California Just Declare Itself a Nation-State?, with Frank Buckley, April 17, 2020
- Secession a How-To-Guide, with Frank Buckley, January 10, 2020
- The One Book You Must Read to Understand American Politics in 2018, September 2018
- F.H. Buckley on The Republic of Virtue — December 31, 2017
- F.H. Buckley on The Way Back: Restoring the Promise of America , — July 03, 2016
- Has America Become an “Elective Monarchy”? — October 26, 2014