Sunday, February 9, 2014
Misguided, Deceptive or Evil?
NOTE: These posts have been reproduced from my old blog, "Random Notes", because I plan to cite their contents in an upcoming essay. I have finished the essay, but, unfortunately, it cites a lot of essays I have not yet reproduced. So it may take time to find and post all of them. Until then, you will like see a handful of these essays popping up on my blog amid a few new essays.
In discussing my last post ("Liberalism, Its Origins and Consequences - Chapter 12 - I'm OK, You're A Mess"), an interesting question came up. To what degree are liberals honestly inspired by the motives they profess, and to what degree are those motives simply a subterfuge to conceal their true motive? Or even a fig leaf to provide a minimal excuse for the few who demand it? It is not a new topic, I addressed something similar a few times before, recently in my posts "Self-Serving Cynicism and Our Cultural Immaturity" and "Deadly Cynicism", as well as in "The Presumption of Dishonesty". (I also examined the opposite side, in a way, in my essays "Tyranny Without Tyrants" and "Three Versions of Evil and the Confusion They Cause", which examined the question of explicitly evil actions.) However, as it does come up from time to time, it seems worth another look. Perhaps this time we will gain a slightly different understanding, maybe gain some new insight.
Without a doubt, there are those who profess motives different from their true intent. Obviously, there is a range of positions here, from those whose motives and statements differ only slightly (eg. those arguing for "soak the rich" tax schemes who really intend to hit the middle class as well), to those whose motives and statements have only the most distant relationship, but no one doubts there are those whose intentions are not made public. In addition, it is also obvious that there are some circumstances, in politics and elsewhere, where no one expects politicians to follow their professed beliefs. For example, despite the strong professed support for balanced budget policies, the continued bipartisan violation of those restrictions makes it clear that no one but the most naive take such statements seriously. However, as anyone openly supporting a deficit would stand little chance, politicians continue to profess support, even if it is never taken seriously1.
However, though everyone knows there are some deceptive politicians, and even run of the mill, rank and file liberals, it is not so clear where the mass of the political left fall. Are they sincere in their professed beliefs? Do they imagine liberalism will help others and is best for the nation? Or are less less honest? Do they profess these beliefs, but truly support liberalism for other reasons? To exercise control? For self-aggrandizement? Out of envy? And if the latter, to what degree? And if they have other motives, what is the significance of those motives? Does it make them dishonest? Or simply unclear about their reasons?2
To make this simple, I believe the answer is that most liberals, especially among the rank and file, those neither intending to hold office, nor spending most of their time thinking about politics, are sincere in their liberalism, or, at worst, might be motivated by some beliefs they would be embarrassed to admit, but which still mean they support liberalism out of relatively innocent motives.
As I have explained many times ("Liberalism, Its Origins and Consequences", "The Inherent Disappointment of Authoritarianism", "The Problem of the Small Picture", "Keyhole Thinking", "When Help Hurts", "Subsidizing Irresponsibility and Poor Planning ", "Perverse Incentives", "Life Is Not Fair - And Trying To Make It So Makes Things Worse", "In The Most Favorable Light", "With Good Intentions"), most liberals believe they are helping others by endorsing liberal causes. And experience definitely confirms this. How many college students combine their profession of liberal beliefs with a declaration they wish to "save the world"?3 How many others show honest dismay when UN resolutions fail? When liberal laws don't have their intended effect? How many spend time on marches, protests and other activism which has nothing to do with their self interest? These are not the actions of someone seeking self-aggrandizement? They can gain no benefit from these acts, they have no hope of holding office, so they do not act to burnish a resume, sot he only possible conclusion is they have a sincere belief in these things they profess, the protests they attend AND the liberal dogma they repeat.
Now, I admit there can be slightly confused motives here. As I said elsewhere, college students often come to believe the great unwashed might be too ignorant to run their lives, and so may profess the need for the more educated and enlightened to guide them more out of a sense of arrogance than a sense of compassion, but there is still an element of playing savior, and the intent is still to better their lot.
And there may be cases which are not quite as clear. For example, income redistribution may be intended to benefit the poor who get income, while the rich suffer, but many argue that this still works for the overall good, and, even if we disregard that statement as self-serving, there is still the intent, at least, to help the poor, meaning the plan is, in part, akin to those ideas intended to improve the lot of a broader segment of society.
But I would not be so quick to dismiss the "help society as a whole" part. Liberals do have a relatively apocalyptic vision of history ("All Life in a Day, or, How Our Mistaken View of History Distorts Our Understanding of Events") tending to see every act in terms of "saving the world" or "bringing about catastrophe". Many liberals have a very juvenile concept that this generation is somehow unique and these days will determine whether society will become paradise or collapse4. Given that, it is quite easy to see how a law intended to redistribute wealth could be seen as helping even those who lost money, as liberals could imagine it would stave off riots which would harm those same wealthy individuals. Not to mention the strange economic beliefs of many liberals, who imagine confiscating money and giving it away somehow "increases purchasing power" and "stimulates the economy". which is also seen as helping the rich. The same is true of environmental restrictions, which, while harming the economy overall, and providing direct benefit to no one, or at best very few, can be seen as "helping" everyone, since otherwise, at least in the minds of environmental true believers, we would all suffer a horrific death.
And so, though they might have some ulterior motives, such as arrogance, a chance to stand tall in comparison tot hose they helped, or even the chance to get into the pants of some hippie chick they met, most liberals really do have the motives they profess, at least in most cases. And it is because of that I still bother to explain the errors behind liberalism. It certainly isn't for those on the right, who have already rejected liberalism (though some "compassionate conservatives" and others may benefit from seeing the error of their quasi-liberal beliefs), but because I believe many liberals are sincere, they wish what is best for others and themselves, and do have an interest in the truth. Of course, like most humans,t hey also hate to find out they have been wrong, and they tend to find fault with the beliefs of others more easily than with their own, and so they are just as hard to reach as anyone else. Still, I hope that in at least a few cases, by pointing out the less obvious implications of liberalism, interventionist economic systems, environmentalism and other faulty belief systems, I might make someone have second thoughts, and perhaps eventually change their mind.
And if anyone doubts that it is possible, recall that only a few decades ago I was nodding in agreement with Saint-Simon, Marx and, later, Bakunin, holding beliefs more extreme than anyone I have described above, and holding them much more strongly. And yet, here I am. So, though it may seem impossible to believe, it is quite possible to reach even the most extreme "true believers" of any political movement. Which is why I continue to try.
1. Again, there are some how really intend to try to balance the budget, but they normally adopt measures much stronger than the usual "Balanced budget amendments" or "spending caps" legislation. The handful serious about balanced budgets tend to have rather detailed, stringent plans. Those presenting anything less are generally assumed to be just one of the pack who profess belief in balanced budgets but have no intention of doing anything in support of that belief.
2. Liberals are not alone in their confusion in this regard. Conservatives can be just as divided. However, as modern conservative movements tend toward less government power (in most incarnations -- though see "Misplaced Blame and A Power Play", "Beware Populist Deception", "The Political Spectrum", "The Best Historical Example" and "Many Types of Conservatives") there is not as much room to indulge one's other desires in the conservative realm. Some may be completely dishonest, espousing conservatism with an intent to follow through on nothing, but excluding that possibility, provided one intends to conform to any conservative beliefs, it provides less power for the office holder than liberalism, making liberalism a better bet for those seeking office out of self-interested.
3. See "Why We Need Adults" and "Some Thoughts on the Media".
4. Unfortunately, conservatives are coming more and more to share in this childish fear. Yes, every administration could potentially bring about the final disaster that destroys a nation, but to assume so a priori is a bit of fear mongering not rational assessment of things. I grant, in my early 20's I panicked over the Clinton victory, a friend and I thinking about moving to Mexico to avoid the problems we foresaw coming after he took office. Fortunately, I came to my senses and did not leave the country, and my fears proved much worse than the reality. Clinton definitely caused problems, but not the apocalypse we feared. Likewise, Obama has done a lot of damage, but, compared to what some predicted in 2008, he has hardly come close tot he worst fears of some.
In a comment when we were discussing this, CW mentioned that "surely" everyone must now know that government cannot resolve many problems and that we are most successful when individual freedom is respected. If that were true, then I would probably have to accept the contention that liberals are largely dishonest in their actions, or, at most,t hat those who are not dishonest are remarkably ignorant.
Unfortunately, CW is wrong in describing what is common knowledge. One need only attend a macro-economics course to hear the constant recitation of Keynesian nonsense about priming the pumps, government "investment" and managed currency. (For that matter, conservatives as well as liberals disagree with my support of the gold standard, proving even conservatives support big government on some issues). In addition, one need only listen to debates on deregulation, unions and right to work laws or any of a dozen other topics to understand that there are still many who sincerely believe big government can succeed.
That being the case, I believe it is still quite likely those arguing for liberal positions can be both moderately well informed and sincere in their beliefs, and so I still stand behind the position I adopt in this essay.
For all those with outstanding comments to which I still need reply, please don't think I am ignoring you. I actually finished this shortly after my last comment, then laid down to read about the War of the Third Coalition and promptly fell asleep. (There are two quotes in the book I am reading which have inspired a future essay, though I actually forget why at the moment... Which should show how tired I am.) After a fairly long nap, I woke up and realized I had not posted this, which I am doing now. But I am a bit too tired to do anything requiring more thought than push a button, or append this message, and so I must ask that you forgive my lack of reply and check back tomorrow. Hopefully I can reply early, but, if not, then I will certainly respond fully after work.
After writing the lines above, I fell asleep at my desk and did not post. However, I am in an equally bad situation for responding this morning, so I will not get to the comments until this afternoon, I believe.
Originally posted in Random Notes on 2001/08/15.