Every political philosophy starts with a set of beliefs about the human condition that are claimed to be universal and timeless. Based on these assumptions, there is a critique of the present state of affairs and the political organization responsible for it. What comes after that is an alternative. The claim is that the alternative will more closely correspond to man’s natural condition. Usually, there is a list of principles put forward that are intended to increase the good and diminish the bad.
Communists, for example, assumed that human beings are naturally cooperative, but that private property creates conflict. The greed of a few, exploiting the many, results in conflict between the classes. Eliminate private property and you eliminate that social conflict. They argued that the move to industrial societies meant scarcity could be eliminated through collective ownership of capital. The elimination of private property would lead to the equitable distribution of production.
Libertarians see cooperation as the result of the diversity of talents among humans and their rational self-interest. Once two people figured out that they could increase their output by combining their efforts, the foundation of society was set. People soon figured out that combining diverse talents increases collective productivity and material prosperity. Because humans are motivated by self-interest, they naturally cooperate with one another to increase their material prosperity.
The people who currently rule over us, start from the assumption that all humans possess the same natural raw material. The differences we see in people are the result of racism, poverty, inequality and the legacy of white supremacy. Otherwise, people come into the world as amorphous blobs that can be shaped into whatever society makes of them. Whether the rulers truly believe this is not important. Public policy is based on the blank slate and extreme egalitarianism.
If the starting point for a political philosophy is a set of universal truths about the human condition, then it is necessary that those truths be based in reality. Marxism has been a bloody disaster, because it assumes things about man that are contrary to the reality of the human condition. Marxists tried to remedy this by killing off the inconvenient, but it turned out that you just can’t kill enough people to make it work. Transforming society into an abattoir lowers productivity, rather than producing plenty.
Similarly, but without the bloodshed, libertarianism has been a complete failure as a political movement, because homo economicus is not real. Material self-interest is certainly part of the puzzle, but humans are motivated by all sorts of things. More important, the assumption that people will deal with one another in good faith, once the monopoly of the state is removed, is false. Every society has some portion motivated to rule over the rest. Someone will always be in charge.
Much of what vexes the modern West is that the people in charge have embraced a political philosophy based on invalid assumptions about human nature. People are not born as amorphous blobs that can be molded into model citizens. Instead, they are the genetic result of thousands of mating decisions that came before them. Further, nature does not distribute her gifts equally between individuals or groups. The diversity of man extends to all aspects of the human animal, not just the superficial traits.
The main reason the West is struggling to square what it believes about humanity with what is happening in the world, is that the core assumptions of the West were formed in the Enlightenment. The great debates about the nature of man were between Europeans, who were primarily concerned with how Europeans would organize themselves, manage relations between groups of Europeans and conduct commerce between and within groups of Europeans.
Another issue is that Western style liberal democracy is a creation of an age when smart people knew very little about the human sciences. Their speculation about the evolution of settled society was a work of imagination. They may have had some sense that humanity progressed from savagery to civilization, but they had no understanding of genetics, evolution or the interplay between culture and biology. They had no knowledge about what we inherited from our simian ancestors.
The big flaw is the assumption that there is some reason, beyond the material, for why humans are the only intelligent species on the planet. We’re special. As such, there must be some reason for it. The very notion of human progress assumes there must be a reason for our existence. After all, to what are we progressing if there is no purpose to our existence? What is the point of the arc of history if it does not have a beginning, middle and end? There must be some reason for it.
Current events are a good lesson in the reality of the human condition. Humans are not relentlessly pursuing their self-interest or naturally cooperative. The engine that drives humanity is the need for safety. We see that all around us as people meekly hide in their closets because they are told the bogeyman is outside. The great panic would not be possible if people were driven by self-interest. Why would the overwhelming majority sacrifice for the one or two percent vulnerable to the virus?
The fact is, people have gone along with this because down deep, in the store of man’s oldest desires, is the urge to huddle in the cave with the rest of the tribe, as the storm rages outside. That is man’s oldest desire as a social animal. To bind together in a shared fear of the natural world is what makes us human. The great motivator of mankind is the desire for safety. If there is a point to our existence, it is to shelter with our cave mates trembling in fear at the great danger outside.
For sure, people do more than just shelter from the danger, but it is the desire for safety that drives our actions. We will cooperate with one another to defeat some threat and will profit greatly from saving people from a threat. Safety and its traveling companion comfort are the great drivers of human progress. A great way to get rich is to eliminate a danger from life. The most popular way, however, is to make the sheltering from the dangers of life as comfortable as possible.
If there is to be a new moral philosophy for the post-Enlightenment age, it will have to be based, at least in part, on man’s nature desire for safety. In fact, the neo-liberal order may very well be the moral philosophy to first root itself in safety. The legion of schoolmarms and harpies monitoring our speech and making sure we have no unclean thoughts are all here for our collective good. They even say their role is to create safe spaces for every conceivable type of person.
The Enlightenment was as much about observing what was happening on its own as crafting blueprints for future societies. Marx, for example, had plenty of examples to draw from to form his ideas. Maybe that is what we are seeing today. As the custodial state forms up, what we call the neo-liberal order will become more formal and get a new name that captures its essence. Perhaps we are living at the dawn of Custodialism, the politics of keeping everyone safe from any possible danger.
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