Tuesday, April 08, 2003

Liberalism, perfectability, and the "Good Life"

CalPundit has some interesting comments this morning on liberalism and the perfectability of man:

By coincidence, I've run across several conservative commentators lately claiming that the reason liberals are fundamentally mistaken in their worldview is because of their belief in the perfectibility of man. This naiveté, presumably, accounts for our unending efforts to make the world a better place through social legislation.

This strikes me as odd, however, because when I examine my own beliefs, I find just the opposite. I'm a liberal precisely because I have a rather dim view of human nature. I am, I suppose, a neo-Hobbesian of some kind, and I fully agree that life in a state of nature is nasty, brutish, and short.

The thing is, I think that's a bad thing, and, like Hobbes, I believe that the purpose of government (and civilization in general) is to force people to act like decent human beings even if they don't want to...

I'm with CalPundit on this one. OK, so Hobbes's Leviathan leads to Absolutism rather than liberalism, but his account of why we have a State rather than not seems fairly sound (though obviously not historical). And it's easy enough to get Liberalism out of it, if you throw in some ongoing concern for people's happiness, rather than saying "anything is better than the State of Nature".

Where I disagree is the following bit:

To put it as baldly as possible, it seems to me that most people only become better if they are kicked, prodded, and ultimately dragged kicking and screaming to do so. Given this, we agree amongst ourselves to form a government that will force betterment on us since human nature is too weak and frail to expect us each to do it on our own. Thus is human progress slowly but surely made.

This seems to be precisely the point that those aforementioned Conservatives were making: that liberals believe we need a State to force us to be better, to force us to be perfect (or in Rousseau's words, to "force us to be free"). But this is a fundamentally illiberal proposition.

Underlying liberalism is the belief that there is more than one way to live your life. This may or may not be based on value pluralism; it doesn't matter. The fundamental point is that liberals (ought to) believe that there are multiple ways of achieving what the Greeks called the "Good Life", and that which life people choose is a decision best left to them. Human perfectability implies that there is only one "Good Life" to lead, and that all other choices are somehow flawed. Liberals ought to reject such thinking.

On this basis, the purpose of the State is not to make us better, but to allow us to be better - on the grounds that it's bloody difficult to pursue your particular vision of happiness when you have to fight constantly for your next meal.