Margin Thinking

A couple of nights ago I woke up in the middle of the night and sent myself an email, and then went back to sleep. The next morning I found an email from myself which only said, in the subject line: “we are margin thinkers.” I had this whole constellation of understanding the night before. The next day I retained only a glimmer. But maybe I can reconstruct it here.

It seems to me that everywhere I look, I find people making business decisions, personal decisions, legal decisions, and so on based not on what is objectively best, but rather only what seems best given the series of decisions that got them to this point. In other words, we don’t step back and think about what the point of the whole undertaking is; instead we make decisions incrementally. We extrapolate from whatever series of decisions got us to the present point, we don’t evaluate the problem in light of the very biggest of questions, like what is the point of living.

If my car breaks, I get it fixed. I don’t waste any time thinking about whether using a car, with all its attendant expenses, is the best way to live my life. But maybe I should. It couldn’t hurt to re-evaluate my dependency on a personal auto. Many years ago before any of the kids were born I listened to a financial guru who advocated renting a car from week to week. Not a long-term car lease (usually a bad idea) but renting from Avis or one of those. It made sense, perhaps because of the prevalent rental rates at the time.

Here’s a bigger example. We’ve long been on a course of secularizing our society, making it antiseptically safe for atheism at the expense of religion. Now, no one pauses to think whether the next step in this secularization process should be taken or not. It’s the logical next step, for the course we’re on. But we should re-consider that course. I could say something similar about the inexorable march of collectivist thinking. People seem incapable of thinking in terms of “I.” There is only “we.”

It seems epidemic that we make decisions on the margin instead of with the big picture in mind, so that we end up with absurd results. It’s like wearing a blind-fold that keeps us from seeing anything but the next 3 feet in front of us. The next step appears to be the right one, but we have no idea where we’re going. Rather than approach questions with a reevaluation of first principles, we accept as given the incremental decisions that got us to the point of the next small step. In this way, we extrapolate from past decisions blindly, never considering that one or a dozen of the past decisions might have taken us off on a misguided tangent.

I think this decision-making on the margin is a product of the progressivist mind-set: that incremental decisions are better because they are incremental. It’s a way to always ratchet in the prevailing direction and never give ground. That keeps us going in a straight line, I suppose, but what if it’s the wrong line? If you set off to follow a compass line and deviate even a little bit from the true direction, then the farther you go, the more lost you become.  I’ve been thinking about this a lot since the left’s adoption of “progressive” to describe their worldview. To what are we supposed to be progressing?


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.