March 6, 2020
ARE YOU A HEDGEHOG OR A FOX?
Are you a hedgehog or are you a fox? How about Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, Barack Obama, or Hillary Clinton? How about your pals? Or your mate?
Philosopher-professor Isaiah Berlin came up with the Hedgehog-Fox concept among friends in the late 1930s, before using it in lectures and essays in the early 1950s. According to the theory, a hedgehog believes in one big truth that governs life and the world, while a fox believes in many smaller truths.
A hedgehog would be someone who will do whatever is necessary to force others into his or her idea of the one big truth. Examples might include Hitler, Stalin, and Mao. A fox would be someone who believes in many smaller truths – some of which may be contradictory and self-serving, according to the given circumstance. Perhaps folks such as Al Capone, Harvey Weinstein, or Casey Anthony.
In real life, foxes believe that the world is too complex to know everything; hedgehogs are on a quest for the one elusive truth that explains it all.
It should come as no surprise that foxes tend to be happier than hedgehogs.
Like most such antonymic comparisons – winners and losers, givers and takers, heroes and cowards – the hedgehog and fox comparison can be valuable as a broad way of looking at people and understanding them. Pushed to the limits, however, it quickly breaks down, something that Berlin was quick to acknowledge.
“For there exists a great chasm between those, on one side, who relate everything to a single central vision, one system, less or more coherent or articulate … and, on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory … related to no moral or aesthetic principle,” Berlin wrote.
That’s because few people are pure hedgehogs or pure foxes. Most of us, fortunately, fall somewhere in between.
The majority of us probably consider ourselves more fox-like than hedgehog. There are only a few of us who go all the way to hedgehogism – although you do find such people on the left and right political extremes.
For instance, I am suspicious of big government. I see government as a necessary evil. But deciding how people should live, what they should eat or drink, and who they may or may not marry should not be the government’s business.
It’s not that big business or big unions can’t be corrupt. They often are. But private organizations have limits that the government does not. The purpose of private business or unions is to provide goods and services and to make money or provide benefits for their stockholders or members. If they fail to do that, sooner or later they go out of business, and some other organization takes their place.
Big government, on the other hand, can continue to raise taxes and throw money at problems to see what may or may not work. Once a new agency is established to solve a problem, it’s almost impossible to get rid of that agency or its people, even if it fails to fulfill its purpose. And with all that money flying around, it’s inevitable that some folks along the line are going to siphon off some for themselves.
However, we do need government agencies to check and make sure that the T-bone we’ve just bought is not riddled with e-coli, that the children of drug-addicted parents have enough to eat and a chance at a better life, and that factories and other businesses aren’t disposing of their toxic junk into rivers or letting it leach down to the water table.
For most of us, it’s merely a question of where you draw the line – whether you err on the side of the fox or the hedgehog.
The world is not fair. It’s never going to be fair. But it can be better, and that’s what we all should work toward. Whether we lean toward the foxes or the hedgehogs, we need to find solutions.
The foxes and the hedgehogs, together.
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