About once a week a stranger performs an act of kindness toward me on the road. Someone will pause at a light or stop sign and let me go first, even though they have the right of way. My usual response is not very gracious, though fortunately the other drivers cannot hear me swearing. Elsewhere I have argued that charity, that cornerstone of western morality, can be evil. Other than recommending me as a modern-day Scrooge, how are these connected? They illustrate an unpopular idea of mine, that liberals seem to side with the angels but often end up doing the devil’s work.
In modern usage, liberal and conservative are opposites. Liberals are for change, conservatives are not. Liberals favor helping the less fortunate while conservatives work for their own self interest. Liberals are intelligent and open to new ideas, being a strong majority in universities and other intellectual circles. Conservative circles include the Ku Klux Klan and those who disbelieve the theory of evolution. Sounds like the liberals win, right?
Brace yourself, for I will argue that liberals can be hypocrites that reduce freedoms and harm others for their own gain. Of course they are mostly unconscious of this and mostly have the best of intentions. But changing the world usually has unintended consequences and the unintended consequence of liberalism can be slavery in some degree.
Improving the World on an Expense Account
I am tempted to start with the history of the word “liberal”, since I think it is relevant. But slavery in ancient Greece must wait while I attempt to justify myself. The problem with most liberal ideas is not that they constitute change. Evolution proves that, while most changes end up failures, experimentation and change are necessary for survival. And the problem with liberal ideas is not that they often encourage the underdog. There is nothing wrong with helping people, since cooperation is the basis of human society.
The problem with many liberal ideas is that they propose a transaction between two parties at the expense of a third party. Conservatives tend to favor market transactions or authoritarian fiat. Being a libertarian, I have problems with most laws, but conservative laws are at least durable and predictable. Liberals tend to favor experimental change, often with self assurance so unshakable that the rest of become involuntary sponsors.
Take my encounters with altruistic motorists who insist I go first. They are at the front of the line and so loose little time for their charity. Being good people, no one will mind if they speed a little to make it up. But someone does pay. I pay because there is a significant risk when right-of-way conventions are ignored. What if I proceed just when the yielding party decides he has waited long enough? Not only could I be hit, but I would be at fault. Worse, the people waiting behind the altruist, the so-called third parties in this transaction, are even more likely to loose, since a collision could effect them too and since they may really be unfairly delayed, especially if a light changes before they make it through. I admit this is not a problem of earth-shaking importance, but when you think about it, a driver who yields when he has right of way is endangering and delaying the rest of us for his own charitable glory. He is above the law, but since his only benefit is his own self esteem, he is just being liberal rather than an outlaw.
To me, the situation is similar but much more serious when a liberal crusader or politician decides to end poverty with my money. Surely poverty is a terrible thing and society would be better without it. But just as surely, it is evil to insist that innocent parties foot the bill. As I see it, charity is fine if both the giver and recipient agree, but Robin Hood, redistributive taxes and conscription are all tinged with moral evil.
Of course, the usual claim is that the party who must pay is not innocent, that they deserve it. But bullies always claim that. Nazi Germany claimed the Jews deserved what they got for basically the same reason the modern left believes the wealthy deserve to pay for the liberal agenda. I am aware that liberals and Nazis are on the opposite end of the political spectrum and the former are probably highly offended at this claim, since their coercion is not nearly so tainted with violence. But remember that all religions, even secular ones like fascism or socialism, really believe that theirs is the way of righteousness. Everyone believes that they know the one true way, and I think the basic goal of society should to mediate as fairly as possible with a few simple and stable rules.
The Liberal Impulse
Democracy is sometimes criticized because it allows one faction to vote itself benefits at the expense of another. The plebs may vote their own bread and circus. I wish they wouldn’t, but such self-serving lobbies are at worst a necessary evil and are probably a good thing overall. Society is cooperation and if people don’t ask, their real needs are unlikely to be satisfied. Of course a dyed-in-the-wool capitalist like myself would prefer a negotiation at the marketplace rather than the ballot box, but we have never quite worked out how to substitute capitalism for all government functions. Tyranny is the alternative and democracy is less unfair most of the time.
I worry that charity can be counter productive, since it increases the giver’s power at the expense of the recipient’s self esteem. Few things make people feel so worthless as being unable to provide for themselves. But simple two-party charity is often anonymous, which helps. And it is usually a market transaction where both parties agree, which also helps.
What really bothers me is what I call the “liberal impulse”, the idea that some reformer can improve the lot of another group with the help of the rest of us. Call it “noblesse oblige” and you may begin to see why I object. One faction harnesses the government to provide for another faction. For example, the so-called upper class might provide for the so-called lower class, with the middle class shouldering the burden. I claim that establishing this class structure is the real point of the exercise, at least from the reformer’s point of view, though he may not be conscious of this. The reformer gains political power or prestige and is the only real winner. If the underclass did not think of themselves as such before, they usually do after this kind of charity.
It is not just that the costs and benefits are unfairly allocated. A potentially worse problem is that even the benefits can evaporate. Spending wisely on an expense account is difficult. As Milton Freedman pointed out, there is no econometric activity so wasteful as spending other peoples’ money for other people. There is no market incentive to spend wisely or even to purchase goods the recipient truly wants.
The result can be a one-sided transaction: one party gains and everyone else is a loser. And I am afraid that the gains are often mostly political. The liberal accumulates power or at least self esteem. But the supposed beneficiaries, the poor or oppressed, usually end up about where they started, no worse but probably not much better off. (One exception is housing, where the liberal impulse can actually make things significantly worse, as our history of government sponsored projects illustrates.)
Long experience proves that welfare cannot end or even reduce poverty. Cruel though it sounds, the poor must do that for themselves. Nothing else really works very well, except to keep philanthropists, politicians and charities gainfully employed.
Liberalism as a Fashion Statement
Liberal causes often seem somewhat religious in nature, pursued with the same fervor. Zealous belief can override reason and fairness. Just as with proselytizing religions, liberals often claim to know what is best for others.
Religious zeal has probably caused more wars and more suffering than any other factor in human history.
As I see it, “religion” is not just a belief in God. It is any unquestioning belief. We humans clearly have an ingrained tendency to believe what those around us believe, regardless of whether it makes rational sense. This is what I call our “religious gene”, and it is clearly adaptive since it allows human societies to function cohesively. The religious impulse is a side effect of our human socialization skills, since we must believe together to act in harmony.
But it is not always a good side effect. Irrational religious-style beliefs have serious downsides, especially in the modern world where societies around the globe are in much closer contact with each other. Our religious gene keeps societies together but also works to tear us apart along national, racial and even class lines.
Liberalism is synonymous with free thinking and conservatism with being hidebound. But it seems to me that liberals are more often concerned with appearances than results. I think it is the liberal impulse that makes us hypocrites, saying things for our own reputation that we do not quite believe nor practice. Agendas that claim to help others but which mostly buttress our own social standing seem hypocritical. Liberals want to seem stylish and their views at times seem like fashion statements. Fashions change with the seasons, being less than utilitarian, and so do many liberal agendas.
The Crusades of medieval times also began as a fashion statement. Upper class nobles and clergy decided to improve the world by liberating the Holy Land. Moreover, their desire was to define their own august positions as liberal and fashionable freedom fighters. The results were extraordinarily destructive.
Conservatives may not be as fashionable, being more concerned with what really works and (maybe) what is fair for all. Even if entrenched fat cats of legend manipulate the system solely for their own benefit, at least we know whose side they are on and the rules of their game. It can be much more difficult to counter liberal arguments made on behalf of others they claim to represent, since it is hard to argue with an absent protagonist and since liberal schemes tend to be new and untested.
Conservative ideas, if not more rational, are at least more about self interest and less about religious-style causes. I worry about all sorts of religious crusades, since history shows them to be highly susceptible to extremism and violence.
Liberals in Ancient Greece
The term “liberal” comes from ancient Greece and literally means “free”. A liberal was anyone who was not a slave. The liberal was free to pursue his or her own goals and (if he was male) to vote in democratic Athens. Democracy aside, Greece of the golden age was a highly stratified society, so much so that we would have difficulty recognizing it as the intellectual foundation of western civilization. Their treatment of women, who where typically isolated from public view in their own room at the back of most private houses and seldom allowed even into the marketplace, reminds us more of middle eastern societies than the west.
Without slavery there could be no liberals, at least in ancient Greece. Not only did slaves provide the social stratification from which the term “liberal” derives, they also provided the work that gave citizens the freedom for liberal pursuits like government, academics, art and war. That was over 2,000 years ago, but have things really changed? I think the liberal impulse is still surprisingly class based. Many outspoken liberals belong to social elites. The working class and small business people are often conservative politically. Moguls and academics are often extremely liberal. It seems to me that most liberals still cannot exist without an underclass to “help”.
To put it bluntly, I think liberals inadvertently tend to enslave those they ostensibly help. Call it the tyranny of the left. Of course, tyranny often comes from the political right too. Conservatives can enslave with puritanical and burdensome rules. But I think the hypocrisy of liberal charity is the greater evil because it is more insidious and difficult to challenge. That liberals are capable of tyranny too is an increasingly important consideration in an increasingly liberal world.
To me, the idea that we know what is best for other people is always evil. Whether a liberal crusader fights for what he sees as right or a conservative despot fights for his own benefit makes no difference, both are wrong. Both are heirs to the slavery long practiced by humans of all stripes, including the original liberals of ancient times.
Evolution vs. Revolution
The other problem with liberalism has more to do with engineering than morality. Liberalism suffers in comparison to conservative approaches, since it simply does not work very well. Conservatism means building on the past. That may sound reactionary and self serving for the old guard, but liberal causes usually mean tearing down past systems to try something new. Revolutions usually fail and even when they work, benefit only a small minority.
We are all tempted to discard the past and start fresh. I am a software engineer. The impulse to rewrite software from scratch is very strong, since old programs are easily erased and replaced and since it can be very difficult to understand how old software works, even with the documentation is good and even when I was the original author. The problem is that, forgetting how our past efforts work, we also tend to forget how well they work. The apparent blemishes obscure the forgotten good parts.
Throwing out old software and rewriting is usually a disaster, taking much longer than expected to produce something that ends up much worse than expected. So successful programmers usually end up modifying old software. Building upon a flawed foundation works better than creating a new foundation.
The same applies in most other human endeavors. We build on past ideas and systems. Sure the metric system is better and easier to learn. But sticking with the ancient English measures has probably benefited the United States. Sure the QWERTY keyboard is a mess, but changing is just too difficult.
Nature knows this lesson well since evolution necessarily builds on the past. The only revolutionary life form was the first one, and maybe not even that. We have four limbs, not because it is best for tool users like ourselves or even because it is best for getting around on land, but because our ancient ancestors developed four fins plus a tail for swimming. Evolution can eliminate the unnecessary, a good thing or my tail would make sitting and typing difficult. But evolution cannot really create something entirely new, like twenty-six fingers for faster typing. Evolution works and revolution almost always fails.
Yet revolutions do happen and we are all heirs to past upheavals. I personally would not be here without several fairly recent and fairly destructive ones including the Soviet Revolution, which probably helped drive my ancestors to America, the American Revolution, which gave my ancestors a place to immigrate, and the destruction caused by the coming of Europeans to this continent, which wiped out the great majority of Native Americans, the former owners of my homeland, mostly through disease but sometimes by active violence. Because we are all products of revolution, we tend to defend and exalt it, forgetting that most violent change benefits a minority at the expense of the rest. That the minority becomes a future majority and rewrites history does not mean unrepresented populations are not hurt.
Revolutions are a natural and inescapable part of life. Periodic forest fires wipe out old tree populations, giving other species the chance to flourish. They can renew the ecosystem and make it more robust. To live is to change and without change there is death. But we should not lightly embrace revolution. Change should build on what we already have, flawed though it may be. Revolutions should be incremental and minor. That is sound engineering practice and the conservative way.
The Lincoln Memorial
I like to provide these articles with at least one illustration to break the monotony of text, though liberalism is difficult to represent iconically. I chose the Lincoln Memorial above because it looks nice, but also as a reminder of some of the controversial points I’ve tried to make here.
Lincoln worked to end slavery. So in one sense his political power was based on helping an oppressed minority, making him liberal by my definition. But in another sense, Lincoln represents the the antitheses of liberalism. For one thing, he ended slavery and without slavery there cannot be liberals, at least in the original sense of the word. Plus, though it is easy to forget, Lincoln was the first Republican president and even in those days the Republican Party was usually seen as more conservative than Democrats, the older party more or less founded by Andrew Jackson which championed western and agrarian interests at the expense of eastern elites. And Lincoln really was conservative in one important sense: he fought to conserve the Unities States against southern revolutionary forces.
Lincoln’s legacy reminds us how close we still are to slavery, having had it in our own homeland in almost modern times. It reminds us of the need to fight slavery and tyranny. But at the same time, I think it illustrates some of the dangers of liberalism, since American slaves did not free themselves to our continuing regret. Being good liberals, we did it for them.
I worry that our black citizens have never recovered from the humiliations suffered over 150 years and six generations ago. It is great that we finally have a minority president. But having a foreign-born father, there is little chance that President Obama is a descendent of American slaves freed by Lincoln. I mean no disrespect toward those whose ancestors were slaves. As a Jew, my ancestors also include slaves in a distant Egyptian past. But I’m afraid that after 36 elections, the slaves America freed have still not inhabited our highest office. I admit there have been more recent persecutions and injustices. But I worry the fundamental problem is that helping an underclass rather than allowing them to help themselves is corrosive to the human spirit and perpetuates that underclass.
Does that mean Lincoln and the Civil War were evil? Of course not - slavery needed to be abolished at any price. But it does imply we could do better with a less liberal approach that assumes our fellow humans are equals who can fend for themselves. Forced equality of outcomes perversely accentuates class differences, while equality of opportunity achieves more real equality in the long run.