Liberalism for pessimists

Human wickedness is a better argument for liberalism than human goodness.

Liberals will often explain their liberalism by citing their optimistic view of human nature. Take this view propounded by liberal luminary Millicent Fawcett:



Or more recently this view by Nick Clegg:

Underpinning… [the liberal] attitude towards power is a particular liberal attitude towards people – a belief that most people, most of the time, will make the right decisions for themselves, their family and their community. A belief in the dispersal of power only makes sense if sustained by this optimism. There would be little point in dispersing power from governments to citizens, families and communities if you did not think they have the capacity and capabilities to put that power to better use than governments themselves.

If as Clegg suggests this kind of optimism about human nature actually was a prerequisite for being a liberal then I would not be one. That’s partly a function of my personal religious beliefs. I’m a Christian of a somewhat Calvinist bent. That means it is an article of faith for me that all human are impregnated with original sin and in need of divine redemption. But you don’t need to share my theological outlook to find human beings a frightening bunch.

The most obvious illustrations of this are the almost unimaginable atrocities of history: the Nazi gas chambers, Stalin’s Gulags or the Khmer Rouge killing fields. The latter of which saw soldiers executing children by smashing their heads of children against trees – shooting them would apparently have wasted bullets. Thus the human beings we are supposed to be optimistic about are capable of building a society in which ammunition was precious but human life was disposable. One could perhaps dismiss this as the work of abhorrent monsters rather than ordinary people but that is to give ourselves too much credit. In the wake of the Holocaust psychologists begun doing controversial research that suggested that randomly chosen volunteers could with alarming ease be encouraged to cause pain or dehumanise others. This shouldn’t come as a terrible surprise; generally when we see an opportunity for people to behave awfully without consequences, we see at least a minority of people behaving awfully. The persistent failure of criminal justice system to punish sexual violence means that shockingly high levels of sexual violence persist. The shield of anonymity online allows for all kinds of hate to be spewed. And anyone who’s worked in a customer service job can relate tales of how beastly people can be when they know you are not allowed to argue back.

Now clearly I am focussing here on the negatives. Humans are capable of great kindness and generosity, and they should be treasured and encouraged. But they should not be expected. Our lighter side is unreliable: more likely to apply to some people than others, subject to our blindspots and often overwhelmed by our worse instincts.

There’s simply no reason to think of goodness as our default. In his excellent book The Better Angels of Our Nature, the Harvard psychologist makes a convincing case that the terrible things humans are not evidence of the corruption of our true nature. Rather they arise from that nature. For example, he shows that in the kind of tribal societies we are often misty eyed about are probably the most violent that have ever existed.  Inhumanity is sadly a very human thing.

Nor is it only others we can screw over; we are quite able to hurt ourselves. On everything from smoking to obesity to saving, we make objectively poor decisions.

Generally, the people who share my scepticism about human nature will incline to authoritarian politics. The usual implication that’s drawn from the idea that people are corrupt is that they need a strong state to prevent them indulging that corruption. And there’s some truth to this. Pinker suggests that the existence of a state reduces violent deaths by somewhere between 75% and 90%. So a preference for authoritarianism over anarchism is prudent.

But they are not the only options. There is also liberalism. It’s necessary because there’s a central flaw in using fallibility to argue for authoritarian politics. The state that’s supposed to contain human fallibility is itself composed of fallible humans. Given the power of the state they can turn tyrannical and/or engage in all kinds of venal profiteering. The best solution we have is not as anarchists suggest to take away the state’s top down power but the liberal one of balancing it with power that comes from the bottom up. Hence the state is made democratic and mechanisms introduced that force it to respect human rights and the rule of law.

As a result, I would suggest that the divide between liberals and authoritarians is not between optimism and pessimism. Rather it is that liberals recognise that everyone is fallible. By contrast, in order to justify giving the state so much arbitrary power, authoritarians tend to wind up assuming that there is a special class of people – be it an aristocracy, priesthood or fuehrer – who have some degree of immunity to that fallibility. I would suggest that both the track record of supposedly special people given power and the fact of our shared humanity strongly suggest that this is a misguided notion.

Irving Kristol once quipped that a conservative is “a liberal who’s been mugged by reality”. But as we’ve seen there’s a hard headed case for liberalism. What makes for authoritarianism is not scepticism about humanity but selective optimism that gives some the right to rule over others. The central liberal insight is that power is dangerous – whoever has it.


Afterword: this post is largely inspired by Judith Shklar’s essay the Liberalism of Fear