April 24, 2024

Perfecting Man, the Impossible Dream

Thomas Sowell thinks the difference between conservatives and liberals has to do with their views about the perfectability of man.

Sowell argues that when it comes to the culture wars, each of us will be drawn to a specific trench not because of policies or parties but rather because of the vision we may hold of human beings and how they are constructed.

Michael van der Gailen agrees, to a point:

Liberals believe in the perfectibility of man, conservatives do not.

But I wonder whether it’s all as black and white as it appears – some conservatives may believe, for instance, that man can improve himself significantly but that there are (biological and spiritual) limits to this personal  evolution.

The same goes for society of course.

I have a tremendous amount of respect for Thomas Sowell – he’s a brilliant guy who makes me look like an intellectual plodder.  And while I think that there are fundamental differences in the way libs and cons view mankind, I don’t think that Sowell has identified the right root cause behind those views.

In fact, liberalism is based not on the assumption of man’s perfectability but rather on the impossibility of human perfection.  Hence the emphasis on sharing of wealth, resources, and risk in the form of government programs and financial redistribution.  Liberalism is all about the collective at the expense of the individual, precisely because the core leftist belief is that men need to be helped into achieving satisfactory outcomes.  Moreover, those few individuals who do achieve greatly must be penalizing and forced into helping raise their beaten competitors to a higher plain of existence.

Conservatives, on the other hand, prize individual achievement much more than social equality and parity of outcomes.  I believe this is because right-wing thinkers have both more faith in a Creator and more faith in individuals’ ability to provide for their own needs, reach their goals, and achieve great things.  The evidence is everywhere in conservative thinking, starting with the tenet that individuals should be allowed to create their own wealth and, having earned it, to keep it for their own purposes.

Perhaps what Sowell means is that liberals believe in the perfectability of society as whole.  That is certainly true, as demonstrated by the left’s continued agitation for social change, regardless of of the actual negative effects their thinking and programs have had on western culture.

Laissez Faire capitalism is, in fact, the natural state of mankind in an environment in which basic personal safety is relatively assured.  Modern western political and social systems vary in their methods and levels of restricting unbridled competition; the essential question dividing liberal and conservative is to what degree capitalism should be constrained.  The answer each of us gives depends in large part on whether we believe society can engineer itself to a higher level or not.

The facts of the last 40 years speak plainly to me and say that the answer is, “No.”


Marc is a software developer, writer, and part-time political know-it-all who currently resides in Texas in the good ol' U.S.A.

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