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Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Liberals And Conservatives

Let's take a closer look at that classroom handout linked in the post below.

The teacher, Barbara Geerdes, is correct in that humanity is viewed as basically good by many liberals and as basically flawed by many conservatives. She unwittingly describes the Utopian and Tragic Visions, as coined by Thomas Sowell.

Ben Casnocha cites his explanation here.

In the Tragic Vision, humans are inherently limited in knowledge, wisdom, and virtue, and all social arrangements must acknowledge those limits. "Mortal things suit mortals best," wrote Pindar; "from the crooked timber of humanity no truly straight thing can be made," wrote Kant. The Tragic Vision is associated with Hobbes, Burke, Smith, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, the jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., the economists Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, the philosophers Isaiah Berlin and Karl Popper, and the legal scholar Richard Posner.

In the Utopian Vision, psychological limitations are artifacts that come from our social arrangements, and we should not allow them to restrict our gaze from what is possible in a better world. Its creed might be "Some people see things as they are and ask 'why?'; I dream things that never were and ask, 'why not?'" The quote is often attributed to the icon of 1960s liberalism, Robert F. Kennedy, but it was originally penned by the Fabian socialist George Bernard Shaw (who also wrote, "There is nothing that can be changed more completely than human nature when the job is taken in hand early enough"). ...

In the Tragic Vision, our moral sentiments, no matter how beneficent, overlie a deeper bedrock of selfishness. That selfishness is not the cruelty or aggression of the psychopath, but a concern for our well-being that is so much a part of our makeup that we seldom reflect on it and would waste our time lamenting it or trying to erase it.

The Tragic Vision says that humans' prime motivation is self-interest, that human do not perfectly desire or perfectly understand what is good. We are inherently selfish, and not basically beneficient as the Utopian Vision claims.

Geerdes claims, "If you give people opportunities to improve themselves they will usually take advantage of them and improve." Improve themselves how? She's referring to welfare handouts, judging from her what she says about conservatives, that they perceive welfare as something that "will not be used properly" and that will "cause additional problems as the weaker tendencies of human nature will be reinforced."

There's a lot of truth in these statements. The Tragic Vision recognizes that humans will tend toward the easiest path available to a particular goal. To borrow an old Rush Limbaugh quip, the government safety net can easily become a hammock. The Tragic Vision also believes that people tend to allocate earned goods more wisely than they allocate freebie goods, contrary to the Utopian view that the welfare dependent are just as efficient as working citizens. The fact that the latter put more effort into work puts an RPG round in the Utopian claim.

Geerdes then proceeds to achieve deep space flight with her claim that liberals favor democratic institutions while conservatives distrust self-governance. Girlfriend, it's the other way around. Tragic Vision conservatives favor self-government precisely because of their limited trust in humanity. Power has to be decentralized in order to minimize the potential for each government office's abuse.

The Utopian Vision favor centralized power. People are basically good, but some are more good than others, and if a given bureaucracy is initially staffed with the more-good-than-others, they will ensure that subsequent hires employ the equally enlightened, guarding the bureaucracy like a holy priesthood. Checks and balances are seen as an element of inefficiency, and an avenue for the less-good-than-others to interfere with operations.

The second half of the handout can be summarized quickly: conservatives favor tradition and the status quo and resist rapid change, while liberals are the opposite. Liberals and conservatives each favor and/or represent different status quo circles, each have different sets of traditions, and each call for different sets of rapid change. Some liberal traditions are quite old; centralized government, for one, is old as the hills, and unions, for another, date at least as far back as the Medieval guilds.

The Tea Parties have lots of folks challenging the status quo and demanding rapid change, and most of them aren't liberal.

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