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

The best things I’ve read recently (19/08/15)

The fallacies of multi-taskers, Republican voters and Francis Fukuyama.

Multi-tasking: how to survive in the 21st century by Tim Harford

There is ample evidence in favour of the proposition that we should focus on one thing at a time. Consider a study led by David Strayer, a psychologist at the University of Utah. In 2006, Strayer and his colleagues used a high-fidelity driving simulator to compare the performance of drivers who were chatting on a mobile phone to drivers who had drunk enough alcohol to be at the legal blood-alcohol limit in the US. Chatting drivers didn’t adopt the aggressive, risk-taking style of drunk drivers but they were unsafe in other ways. They took much longer to respond to events outside the car, and they failed to notice a lot of the visual cues around them. Strayer’s infamous conclusion: driving while using a mobile phone is as dangerous as driving while drunk.

Less famous was Strayer’s finding that it made no difference whether the driver was using a handheld or hands-free phone. The problem with talking while driving is not a shortage of hands. It is a shortage of mental bandwidth.

Yet this discovery has made little impression either on public opinion or on the law. In the United Kingdom, for example, it is an offence to use a hand-held phone while driving but perfectly legal if the phone is used hands-free. We’re happy to acknowledge that we only have two hands but refuse to admit that we only have one brain.

Regicidal Republicans (the Economist)

…while Republican voters are exceedingly angry and mistrustful, their lynch-mob rage is selective. Mr Carson could hardly be less fiery (though he primly disapproves of many things), yet he is surging. And the same conservative activists who disbelieve the establishment on all fronts are startlingly willing to give outsider candidates like Mr Trump, Mr Carson or Ms Fiorina, the benefit of the doubt. So highly trusting are rank-and-file Republicans that—to the despair of pundits and fact-checkers—they shrug when Mr Trump refuses to provide any details about how he would handle foreign affairs, breezing that once he is president: “I will know more about the problems of this world”. Nor do they seem fussed to be told that Ms Fiorina’s time as a CEO was marked by massive job losses, after a bungled merger. A fourth anti-establishment candidate, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, seems able to tap into this mood of strangely extravagant trust, by playing up his credentials as a serial rebel and critic of party leaders in the Senate.

Republican primary voters are not in a revolutionary mood, then, but a regicidal one. They think their rulers are corrupt, inept and mendacious, if not actually treasonous. But they are at the same time ready to swoon before new rulers promising to fix America in an instant. The key credential required to earn that trust is a lack of experience. Will those outsiders disappoint their followers in their turn, triggering a still deeper loss of public trust? Probably. This is going to be a bumpy year.

It’s Still Not the End of History by Timothy Stanley and Alexander Lee (the Atlantic)

If liberalism is to survive and flourish, it has to be rescued from Fukuyama’s grasp and from the perils of historical determinism. It has to be defined and defended all over again. This of course raises the question of what liberalism actually is—and it’s notable that so many liberals skip this step in debate as though it was unimportant. In a recent issue of Foreign Policy dedicated exclusively to reevaluating Fukuyama’s legacy, the unresolved problem of “the liberal identity” was conspicuous by its absence. Article after article foundered in their attempts to defend liberal alternatives to populism or socialism precisely because they offered no satisfactory post-Fukuyama understanding of liberalism. But it is impossible to defend liberalism against its critics without making it clear precisely what it stands for. Skeptics can hardly be won over if liberals can’t tell them what they are being won over to or how it differs from the uninspiring mess created by Fukuyama and his continuators.

What’s a liberal? A conservative or a socialist who realises they might be wrong

The always insightful David Boyle writes on his blog about why liberals should take Karl Popper seriously. Boyle explains the link between Popper’s philosophy of science and his views on politics:

You may not be able to prove what you believe about the world, no matter how often an observation or experiment takes place, but you can disprove it.

Popper used the example of swans. It doesn’t matter how many white swans you see, it still doesn’t prove that all swans are white. But if you see a black swan, then you know they are not.

Popper was writing during the Second World War, his home city was in the hands of totalitarians, and he quickly found himself applying this insight to politics too. In doing so, he produced one of the classic twentieth century statements of philosophical liberalism, The Open Society and its Enemies.

He said societies, governments, bureaucracies and companies work best when the beliefs and maxims of those at the top can be challenged and disproved by those below. This has huge implications, not just for effective societies, but for effective organisations too.Popper was flying at the time in the face of the accepted opinions of the chattering classes. They may not have liked the totalitarian regimes of Hitler or Stalin, but people widely believed the rhetoric that they were somehow more efficient than the corrupt and timid democracies.
Popper explained why they were not, and why Hitler would lose. Anybody who has read Antony Beevor’s classic account of the Battle of Stalingrad, and the hideous slaughter and inefficiencies brought about by two centralised dictators who had to take every decision personally, can see immediately that Popper was right.
I’d argue that what defines liberalism is taking seriously the possibility that you are wrong. Liberals may not read Popper as much as Boyle would like. However, we are instinctively drawn to institutions like localism, proportional representation and a free press that allow people to articulate (and indeed sometimes implement) alternative approaches to the government – including potentially a liberal one.
This seems like the right approach. Human societies are almost impossible to understand: each individual is complex and paradoxical, so when millions of them interact the uncertainty is mind blowing. The communities we live in are subject to an extraordinary amount of diversity and butterfly effects. Oh and this is a system we are part of, so are denied the opportunity to look at from the outside. With all this mind, it is best to suppose – as liberals do – that we are wisdom consists of knowing how little we know….Well Probably!
Hat tip: Stephen Tall