I talked last week with a couple interested in moving up the shore for retirement. Comparing it to their urban area, they asked how newcomers fared along the clearly more homogenous North Shore. I said (and it is true) our little shore communities are uniformly friendly. Then without further thought (a well-documented problem) I added, “But remember, if not born here you’ll always be an outsider, possibly socialist.” They laughed. My comment was an exaggeration, but with a germ. We may and should laugh at such stereotypes, but laughter makes them no less true.

For ease of categorizing, we make frequent either/or distinctions. Their use simplifies and speeds up mental processing. A person is Republican or Democrat. They are liberal or conservative. A neighbor is religious or non-religious. You’re rich or poor; wasteful or frugal. Of course we know that for most individuals, the lines are not that clear. Someone extending the life of the paint job on his house with an extra five years of shabby fade may be economical, or he could hate to paint or be lazy. But that person could be saying a once-in-a-lifetime family vacation before the kids got too old was more important than new paint. What do you think? Individual cases are always more complex and interesting than our easy stereotypes. You’ve known devout, go-to-church religious types who are nasty, foul human beings. I’ve met some heathens I’d trust my life to. You don’t get character or integrity out of a stereotype. It’s OK to think in paintbrush broad terms. We do so for convenience. But we need the reminder that doing so is far from full and detailed truth.

It’s ironic that around the time of my “either born here or outside socialist” comment, another individual pinned me down with an argument about how this nation had to decide if it was going to be “free enterprise or socialist.” From his tone it was clear the answer had to be either/or. My initial thought was “Well, good luck with that windmill tilt.” Fact is, I did not want to get into that argument, especially not with someone all lined up with a stereotype army in serried ranks assembled. Such discussions are like having a talk with a dictionary. Chat with an encyclopedia and see if there’s much pleasure in it. You may go away better informed, but the book is closed for business when it comes to admitting any view from your side.

I began to think about the either/or way of thought. (I apologize. Either I fail to think before I speak or do so, as in this case, too much, often with the same result. I hope some day to get it just right.) Either/or usually carries a full load of unvoiced suppositions like these. Free enterprise = hardworking, and socialist = lazy freeloader. Free enterprise = earning, while socialist = taking. You get the idea. Beyond the gloss one can apply to either side, there is (to me) the worrying emphasis on money as a more important concern for government than people. We could go that way with a few minor tweaks to our founding documents. “All men are created unequal according to income, birth, class, occupation, belief, or group.” I imagine that tweak would yield a more predictable and stable society. Would it be a productive society? Would it be a happy country if cash came before citizenship?

Another problem with either/or is its lack of analytic thought. A line of straw men to burn, wooden soldiers marching, or planks of prejudiced positions is not a substitute for understanding. Either/or is a fine thing for sound bites or commercial, for-profit political programming. It will leave a person more convinced or more adamant but not necessarily better informed. Take the two simple words “free enterprise.” It seems so clear from the presentation that free enterprise would be the superior choice and that all that socialist stuff would drag that better choice to perdition and do harm to us all. It does look that way, doesn’t it? But it is not that simple. Ask only this: which free enterprise is meant?

Do we mean the free enterprise that uses less than 40-hour jobs to avoid wage and benefit costs? Is it the free enterprise that profits from disposable goods that we pay to discard and which clog our landfills? Is it the free enterprise that walks away from American workers because they won’t work for Malaysian wages? Is it the free enterprise that shuns group health care plans as individual responsibility? Is it the free enterprise that thrives on minimum-wage jobs because there are food stamps or heating assistance to take up the slack? Is it the huge free enterprise system that employs undocumented agricultural workers? I’m not assigning blame because we all benefit in some way or other from “cheaper” goods or services, but we end up paying for it somewhere down the line.

Fast food, as one example, sends volumes of trash out the door. This saves them money on dishes, dishwashers, etc. They are more profitable as a result, but we’re paying for it in the end because to date I’ve not seen either a waste management truck or landfill with a fast food logo. Have you? It’s the “socialist” side that picks up that skipped-over cost of doing business. Our system doesn’t work on either/or. We’re a blend. I can bet you a dollar to a donut that held to account you can’t find a free enterprise operation that does not in some way rely on social support of some form. People are free to think otherwise, but they’d be wrong unless they don’t think it would be both social injustice and anarchy to limit government to “interfere” with nothing other than defense.  If you limit yourself to thought in dizzy-headed stereotypes, that’s a wonderful image—until you try to live it.