Notes From Babel

“Producing policies that improve the human condition”

with 6 comments

From Fear and Loathing in Georgetown, an excerpt from a 2005 article by Jonathan Chait:

Liberalism is a more deeply pragmatic governing philosophy–more open to change, more receptive to empiricism, and ultimately better at producing policies that improve the human condition–than conservatism.

The really odious component of this statement is disguised as an implied premise: that “the human condition” can be improved, or that such is a legitimate or principal aim of government. This is one of the key ways that liberals and conservatives talk past each other. Liberals rail that conservatives don’t come up with plans to solve the world’s problems and “improve” the “human condition.” Conservatives, in my view, don’t care about all that stuff. Perhaps “time horizons” is a way to take some wind out of liberals’ sails, a way to counter that the way to solve the problems liberals’ are worried about is to take the long view. But really, the truly conservative position is that government ought to sit tight until there arise the sort of problems government is instituted to address; to observe the difference between threats to security and threats to comfort; to stop acting like Mrs. Reverend Lovejoy at every Dateline story, for heaven’s sake. “Won’t somebody PLEASE think of the CHILDREN!!!”

There will always be some deficiency in the “human condition” to be remedied, improved, assuaged, or eliminated.  But this is part of the human condition—to be forever dissatisfied.  To assume that government is assigned the task of perfecting the human condition is the big lie implicit in all this talk about employing empiricism and social science in lawmaking.

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Written by Tim Kowal

November 15, 2010 at 10:13 pm

6 Responses

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  1. I’ve been thinking about this for a bit. The time horizons thing, for me at least, is about finding a way to explain to liberals where they are going wrong somewhat on their terms, which I think taking the wind out of their sails describes pretty well.

    But then again, I don’t think conservatives don’t care about improving the human condition. While Chait doesn’t say this, but when he writes that, I believe he means specifically human material condition. There are plenty of conservative charities working to alleviate poverty, disease, etc in developing nations.

    Perhaps conservatives care only insomuch that there is deprivation whereas the liberal goal is much further beyond that. But I’m not sure conservatives don’t care about the human material condition at all.

    Fear and Loathing in Georgetown

    November 16, 2010 at 6:14 am

  2. As you suggest, this all very much depends on what we mean by “the human condition.” Preliminarily, it should be noted that conservatives (and this is one area where they agree with libertarians) don’t believe *government* should be concerned with improving “the human condition.” They don’t believe government is instituted to “make society nice”—one of the “four big lies” that Tim Sandefur argues in his recent book, The Right to Earn a Living, defines the Progressivist movement of the early- to mid-20th century.

    For conservatives, particularly Christian conservatives, the very reason the human condition is steeped in a perpetual general state of agony—whether psychic or physical—is part of God’s design. And perhaps even so that others of us can take part in direct, personal acts of charity and kindness to alleviate that suffering. Government usurping this role deprives individuals of this important part of our spiritual life.

    So in a certain sense, I’d disagree with you: conservatives really don’t care about improving “the human condition,” to the extent that means “perfecting” humanity by removing the essential defects of its character, or by creating a world in which those defects do not result in suffering. That is not because conservatives don’t care about suffering. Quite the opposite. It is because conservatives are not so naive about humanity to believe anything can be done about its “condition.” Put another way, conservatives don’t care about the human condition. They care about the condition of humans.

    Tim Kowal

    November 16, 2010 at 8:08 am

  3. <>

    This is false. Conservatives are every bit as fond of Progressivism as liberals–moreso, in some ways. Progressives were actually quite socially conservative, and believed, as today’s conservatives do, in using the state to make people good–i.e., to control marriage, sex, education, the use of alcohol or drugs, and all those other social issues. The main body of conservative intellectuals is extremely close to the Progressives of the turn of the century–Robert Bork, for example. True, there are some conservatives, of whom you are one, who take natural rights seriously in ways Progressives did not, but so far as I know you remain every bit as ready to use the state to control marriage, sex, education, et cetera. I recommend on this subject Michael McGerr’s outstanding book “A Fierce Discontent.”

    Timothy Sandefur

    November 22, 2010 at 11:46 am

  4. I have some theories that might explain your first point, but I’ll need to think on them more. I’ll try McGerr’s book.

    I would also clarify that while I would defend a legislature’s authority to pass on certain questions, this does not mean I would defend a legislature’s *exercise* of such authority. That is, I do not believe every bad law is unconstitutional.

    I also except to the word “control” as it applies to certain moral questions. There are certain issues, suicide comes to mind, that while prohibited by law, cannot be said to seek to “control” certain behavior. Indeed, who do we suspect might be deterred from swallowing a bottle of pills by threatening them with criminal sanctions? These things stand as symbols of a people’s belief systems, which will naturally make their way into the people’s laws. Should they be “laws,” strictly speaking? Probably not. But people are messy, and governing them often does not lend to tidy legal theories.

    Tim Kowal

    November 22, 2010 at 12:19 pm

  5. […] to achieving it through culture and society, not through coercive government controls.  Sandefur excepted as follows: This is false. Conservatives are every bit as fond of Progressivism as […]

  6. […] Discontent: The Rise and Fall of the Progressive Movement in America, 1870-1920 after making some comparisons of conservatism and liberalism to Progressivism.  It was one of the first full length books I read […]


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