Saturday, December 14, 2013

The Crooked Timber Of Humanity

Buchanan and Powell:

For centuries now, conservative thinkers have argued that significant social reform is impossible, because human nature is inherently limited. The argument goes something like this: sure, it would be great to change the world, but it will never work, because people are too flawed, lacking the ability to see beyond their own interests and those of the groups to which they belong. They have permanent cognitive, motivational and emotional deficits that make any deliberate, systematic attempt to improve human society futile at best. Efforts to bring about social or moral progress are naive about the natural limits of the human animal and tend to have unintended consequences. They are likely to make things worse rather than better.

It’s tempting to nod along at this, and think humans are irredeemable, or at best, permanently flawed. But it’s not clear that such a view stands up to empirical scrutiny. For the conservative argument to prevail, it is not enough that humans exhibit tendencies toward selfishness, group-mindedness, partiality toward kin and kith, apathy toward strangers, and the like. It must also be the case that these tendencies are unalterable, either due to the inherent constraints of human psychology or to our inability to figure out how to modify these constraints without causing greater harms.

Must it be? If it's not absolutely true, it can't be provisionally true? Sounds fallacious to me. And isn't this a question that could only truly be answered in hindsight, looking back on the human experiment from its endpoint? Speaking of which: as we were just discussing, it could very well be that the Enlightenment cosmopolitanism of which the authors make so much in this article is itself dependent on unavoidable material limitations. “The mansion of modern freedom stands on an ever-expanding base of fossil-fuel use.”


Brian M said...

I guess my problem with conservatism is the assumption that the institutions developed by flawed humans somehow avoid the flaws they criticize. Democracy may be Idiocracy, but any history (there is your hindsight) would have to conclude that "conservative" aristocracy and church hierarchy was/is flawed as well.

Tradition is not the solution, necessarily. Because human beings and their institutions are flawed.

The Vile Scribbler said...

To be precise, the authors are using "conservatism" in a broader sense than merely political. They're talking about anyone who's skeptical of the likelihood of humankind continuing to culturally and psychologically evolve in a progressive direction. I'm only interested in the rhetorical sleight-of-hand they use here, where they conflate possibility and likelihood.

But as for political conservatism, I don't see where it assumes -- in theory, at least -- that any system is free of flaws. The best we can ever hope to do is pick the least worst solution. The devil you know is better than the one you don't.

Brian M said...

I don;t agree that the devil you know is always better than the one you don't.

By your logic, every immigrant to the United States made an error.

An African-American in 1861 should have joined the Confederate Army? Not that I am claiming that post-Reconstruction America was a garden spot, but I can't accept the conservative position that one should just passively accept an existing system or institution. I am creating a bit of a strawman here as I am sure you are not taking it this far, but that IS quite a blanket statement, Scribbler. :(

The Vile Scribbler said...

I'm not endorsing it, I'm saying that's what I understand to be the general conservative position. Any change is going to involve tradeoffs, so the goal is to pick which tradeoffs you're willing to live with.

Brian M said...

OK. Understood. Heck, I am "conservative" on some things.

I merely thought this was another step along the Scribbler's evolution into Get Off My Lawn conservatism. (Just kidding, just kidding!)

If you start quoting Victor David Hansen or David Brookes, though! ")