The High Road and the Low


Jason Kuznicki

Jason Kuznicki is a research fellow at the Cato Institute and contributor of Cato Unbound. He's on twitter as JasonKuznicki. His interests include political theory and history.

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43 Responses

  1. Avatar pat says:

    This is a topic often discussed by fantasy writers. There is a gigantic segment of the population out there who are frantic to believe that strength and aggression will get them what they want. Many many authors have made a good living out of giving these people stories that support that fantasy. The market is insatiable.Report

  2. Avatar Mike Schilling says:

    There are way too many people who conclude from the falsity of “violence never soled anything” that violence solves everything. Many of them claim to worship a man they call the Prince of Peace, and take occasional time away from killing and torturing to remind us that homosexuality violates God’s Plan.Report

  3. Avatar Jaybird says:

    You see this with all manner of things. (Prohibition, for example.)

    It’s because there is a particular goal in mind and the goal is the only thing that matters. One may try the high road first… and then, of course, the high road does not work. (Sermons telling people not to drink doesn’t work! Who knew?)

    At that point you go down the low road. Pass laws. Hire people to kick down doors. Hire people to poison “product”. Hire people to shoot smugglers.

    This is because the goal has not changed.

    To sit back and say “this isn’t working and it’s worse than not trying anything, maybe we should stop” (without even touching upon the unthinkable “well, maybe it’s not any of my business if people drink”) is to abandon a goal.

    We saw this with Prohibition.
    We saw this with Communism.
    We’re smack dab in the middle of it with the WoT/D.

    When the high road does not work and the low road does not work, the only remaining option is to abandon the goal.Report

    • Avatar Pat Cahalan in reply to Jaybird says:


      But Jay, to admit that we were pursuing a ridiculous goal all along is to admit that we’re ridiculous.

      Why do that when the high-roaders can all point to the low-roaders and say, “Our high-road solution would work if it weren’t for all the consequences of these low-road idiots mixing with the process!” and the low-roaders respond by doing the same.

      Cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias… people have blind spots big enough to drive a truck through.Report

    • Avatar 62across in reply to Jaybird says:

      @Jaybird, I wonder if there is ever a time when the goal remains too worthy to abandon, regardless of how resistant it is to either the high road or the low road.

      Communism, Prohibition, WoT or WoD don’t meet this criteria to my mind, but I believe there are goals that are seemingly inexorable, that thwart the high road first and the low road second, yet they should still be pursuedReport

      • Avatar ThatPirateGuy in reply to 62across says:


        Perhaps getting people to give the high road a chance is one of those goals?Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to 62across says:

        @62across, throw me an example. Nothing’s quickly coming to mind…Report

        • Avatar 62across in reply to Jaybird says:

          @Jaybird, ThatPirateGuy beat me to the first thing that came to my mind. Commenters to Henley’s piece are claiming this behavior is human nature, so changing it would be nigh impossible. Yet, better outcomes could be achieved if it were accomplished.

          If I’m to get really pie-in-the-sky, I’d suggest ending hunger.Report

      • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to 62across says:


        I wonder if there is ever a time when the goal remains too worthy to abandon, regardless of how resistant it is to either the high road or the low road.

        So… some goals are worth so much that we are best off just ritually wasting money and lives before them, with no hope of ever making even marginal progress? Why not spend your resources on some other goal, and just say that you’re working on the impossible one?

        Even hookers and blow begins to look pretty good at the point we’re really talking about.Report

        • Avatar ThatPirateGuy in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

          @Jason Kuznicki,

          Did you just successfully argue that we could trade in the justice system for hookers and blow?Report

          • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to ThatPirateGuy says:


            No, but I sort of wish I had. I meant that if there are no improvements even on the margin, then we should stop devoting resources to a given activity. There may be some marginal gains left to be had in our justice system, on some dimensions, by spending more. There are probably a lot of marginal gains to be had, on other dimensions, by spending less in those other areas. I doubt very much we could do without a justice system entirely.Report

          • Avatar Simon K in reply to ThatPirateGuy says:

            @ThatPirateGuy, Heh. Reminds me of the TED talk I watched yesterday arguing that for the cost of up-grading the channel tunnel link to “high” (ie TGV) speed you could have outfitted the trains with naked super-models serving Chateau Petrus to all the passengers for the next 10 years and then passengers would be begging for the trains to go slower …

            Aside from being a great mental image, the point was related to the one here: spending huge amounts of blood and lucre on big important goals is very often not even remotely worth it, and small things very often acheive more.Report

        • @Jason Kuznicki,

          I would say that there probably are Sisyphean goals worth pursuing.

          However, it does not follow that one ought to attempt to to pursue those goals using the framework one currently is using.

          There are some endemic problems that we ought to correct, but this doesn’t imply that the legislative construct we refer to as the government is the right tool to use to correct them.Report

  4. So long as I get to Scotland before you.Report

  5. Avatar gregiank says:

    It has been truly disheartening over the past few years to see how many of my fellow Americans truly just believe in the cult of hard ass. they really think just being tough, being violent and bearing down solves every problem.Report

  6. Avatar Rufus says:

    I think greginak’s got it right. It’s all about “realism”. Sure, we’d like to take the high road, but that’s “unrealistic”. Life’s too tough for that, the world sucks, grow up, stop sucking your thumb, etc. So the low road becomes the only “mature” choice and, if that doesn’t work, all hope is lost. It’s a mentality with no good end.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Rufus says:

      @Rufus, a commenter on Henley’s site made an excellent point.

      What does the High Road *LOOK* like? Well, it’s a bunch of folks talking. Talking? That’s barely doing anything!

      The Low Road? That’s people getting out there and kicking some ass! They’re dropping bombs! At least they’re doing *SOMETHING* rather than sitting around and doing a jawbone workout!

      And, of course, when “doing something” doesn’t result in “getting something accomplished”, well, AT LEAST THEY FRIGGIN’ TRIED.Report

      • Avatar ThatPirateGuy in reply to Jaybird says:


        I read another commenter talking about how fantasy so often uses evil races such as orcs to have faceless villans.

        It amuses me because as a dnd player I am deeply aware that most of the time the Player charcter heros are not much more than self-justifying thugs who engage in very violent home invasions of creatures at the edges of society. I feel bad for the orcs, and I think the fellowship/non-mordor forces are hardly more than people who traffic in stolen property; Cut the fingers off innocent evil overlords; Burn duly recognized bounty hunters seeking stolen property; destroyers of evidence.

        All sauron wanted was to control the world. Sure he engaged in torture but what country doesn’t at least use “enhanced interogation”?Report

  7. Avatar Mike Farmer says:

    I’m paving my own road. Donations are welcomed.Report

  8. Avatar Sam M says:

    I am curious about the way “civil disobedience” fits into the mix. The classic example of the civil rights movement is one thing. MLK could have certainly chosen a more violent path, and some of his contemporaries did. It takes a lot of courage.

    But what else are we talking about? When a bunch of bikers take to the road, en masse, at a given time and place, or when a group of environmentalists stages a sit-in at Forsest Service headquarters, they are basically doing so to block commerce and, hopefully by making life miserable or uncomfortable enough for a target audience, impact their future behavior. Or just make a point.

    This seems an awful lot like a blockade to me, if not in scope, at least in spirit.

    I guess what I am getting at is that the goals of the activists in question would seem to have a huge impact on our assessment. This is obvious, of course. But when a bunch of kids at an Ivy League school shut down the cafeteria for this cause or that… Is that high road or low road? Does standing between an undergrad and her vegan chili wrap qualify?Report

    • Avatar ThatPirateGuy in reply to Sam M says:

      @Sam M,

      Bit of a gray area isn’t it. Still I can say with no ambiguity that I vastly prefer the westboro baptist church to the people who killed Mathew Shepard.

      I can get over not getting my vegan chili wrap with much greater ease than I can being shot.Report

    • Avatar Mark Thompson in reply to Sam M says:

      @Sam M, I’m going to go with “moderately low road” for the “civil disobedience” you describe. That type of civil disobedience is fundamentally aggressive, I think, aimed at calling attention to one’s cause by inconveniencing others (even if you accept that you’ll go to jail as a result). Civil disobedience of the “high road” variety is inherently non-aggressive – merely a refusal to obey an unjust law for the purposes of changing that unjust law, while accepting the consequences of doing so. The international relations equivalent would be, I guess, something akin to Japan refusing to cut back on whaling while accepting, without much protest, the international consequences of that refusal.Report

  9. Avatar 62across says:

    None of this is helped by the 24/7 news culture, either. There are no good pictures to go with high road actions, but blow something up and that’s good TV.Report

  10. Avatar Dan says:

    I think Nietzsche sums it up rather nicely in “The Genealogy of Morals” when he suggests that we punish in large part because of the pleasure that we derive from causing another pain, and the power we demonstrably have over the one who is punished/suffers.Report

  11. Avatar Scott says:

    Henley sounds like a typical liberal that can’t face certain realities about life. Namely that if the high road really worked, that we humans would have done away with the low road. I suppose he would rather engage in mental masturbation than face real life.Report

    • Avatar gregiank in reply to Scott says:

      @Scott, henley- typical liberal…..ha haReport

    • Avatar agorabum in reply to Scott says:

      @Scott, Yes, that’s probably why he says you do, on ocassion, have to go down the low road.
      And you seem to understand humanity real well. Because humans are never tempted to take the cheap, easy, and short term route (and never do), and only do the most economical and practical things at all times.
      Obviously, you have not been following the conversations on hubris…(or the news on BP’s corner cutting…or anything on most of the Iraq war…)Report

    • Avatar Mark Thompson in reply to Scott says:

      @Scott, It is thus your position that the high road never works? It is explicitly not Jim’s position that the high road always works or that the low road is always wrong. Rather, the point is that there is no patience for the high road, while there is ample patience for the low road. At what point do we say, “hey, this Cuba embargo isn’t working out the way we hoped, maybe it’s time to try the high road”? When sanctions against Iraq weren’t working, why was the default option “we need to take an even lower road” rather than “why don’t we try the high road”? Maybe the high road would have failed every bit as much as the lower road wound up failing, but the point is that the high road wasn’t even on the table.

      …And it’s not as if there are no real-world examples of the high road working. After all, most of us somehow manage to resolve our conflicts peacefully and amicably in the overwhelming majority of situations. Hell, there’s even some phenomenally prosperous countries who have avoided violent conflict for hundreds of years merely by demonstrating a preference for high road solutions in international affairs. You could even say that their ability to do so is a major reason for their prosperity.Report

      • Avatar Scott in reply to Mark Thompson says:

        @Mark Thompson,

        We have lots of trade and exchanges with China but they are still despotic commies so I guess the high road didn’t work there. Which “phenomenally prosperous countries” are you referring to?Report

        • Avatar Mark Thompson in reply to Scott says:

          1. Switzerland.
          2. You seem willfully ignorant of the whole point that no one is saying the “high road always works.”
          3. Is China more or less despotic in 2010 than it was in 1970? What about Cuba compared to 1960? North Korea compared to 1954? Iran compared to 1980?
          4. Was taking the high road with China helpful or hurtful in winning the Cold War? What about taking the low road in Vietnam?
          5. Most importantly, though, I will reiterate the point: why is patience for low road solutions inexhaustible, but patience for high road solutions minimal?Report

          • Avatar Scott in reply to Mark Thompson says:

            @Mark Thompson,

            Switzerland has only been neutral when they can’t tell who is winning. You really should learn more about their significant nazi collaboration. Besides, it is some small insignificant nation that if it disappeared tomorrow no one would notice. No one relies on them to do anything, unlike the US.

            If you are a citizen of one of those countries you mentioned who is killed by the current despotic gov’t, I serious doubt you care if they appear to be less despotic then than did 10 or 20 years ago, since you are just as dead.

            We didn’t lose Vietnam b/c we went to the low road, we lost b/c we the Dems made us fight the war with half measures instead of using all of resources as we did in WW2.

            How long are we supposed to wait for the high road to work, 50 or 100 years? All the while putting up with our enemies and hoping they don’t do us any harm?Report

            • Avatar Mark Thompson in reply to Scott says:

              @Scott, I note that you have ignored the point. China is at least moving in the right direction and is at a minimum certainly not what one would call an enemy of the United States. Iran, North Korea, Cuba….not so much.

              I am also rather amused by your continued refusal to actually address the points Henley raised, relying instead on straw man after straw man.

              Re: Switzerland – the point is rather that they have somehow managed to have avoided getting invaded or annexed or anything of that ilk by taking the high road approaches. Whether they are a small nation is irrelevant – the point is that it shows that it is possible for a nation to protect its interests while exhibiting a strong preference for high road approaches.Report

            • Avatar ThatPirateGuy in reply to Scott says:


              You are also just as dead when you get killed by the invading/occupying force sent in to remove the despotic government. Still just as dead when terrorists opposing the occupation blow up the market, school, etc.

              It is almost as if the low-road can have terrible downsides that may even outweigh the benefits to such an extent that you would rather the outside power have done nothing, much less tried the high road.

              Question: What specifically should we be doing with china and how would it affect the Chinese person on the street(of china)?

              Question 2: Given that “we lost b/c we the Dems made us fight the war with half measures instead of using all of resources as we did in WW2.” and that the country seem to survive that just fine why was it so damned important to send our army in there? I mean if you can have the war lose it and not care then why not not have the war?

              What would the high-road of not going there cost us?Report

            • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to Scott says:

              @Scott & Mark, All the talk about Switzerland has me thinking of this sketch: