The potential of radical evil from the pursuit of progress

…the commonplace distinction between utopianism and meliorism is less than fundamental

The title of this post is suggested by the final sentence of John Gray’s review in the Times Literary Supplement of Vladimir Tismaneanu’s recent book, The Devil in History: Communism, Fascism, and some lessons of the twentieth century (UCalifornia Press).  Tismaneanu’s book describes the ultimate similarities of Communism and Fascism in their shared belief that certain people and groups of people could be justifiably eliminated in the creation of the desired new society.  Gray proposes that it is essential to see in the modern liberal consensus some similar strains of chiliasm, utopianism, and meliorism (and in some instances we should add scientism).

While modern liberalism does not enjoin the murderous techniques of 20th century Communism and Fascism (though we have yet to grapple honestly with the implications of philanthropy’s involvement with the eugenics movement), it’s quest for social control may, as institutionalized through corporate liberalism and public policy that continues to consolidate power in the centralized welfare state, contribute steadily to the death of the human spirit.  

Our search here for a vision and theory of philanthropy and social order rooted in classical liberal principles must also criticize ideological forms of illiberalism (though they proclaim Enlightenment and liberalism) that share not only an illimitable meliorism but a practical disdain of the free human spirit and an abiding skepticism of the social processes of self-governing communities.  

It has long been my contention that the mantra of social change (typical examples here, here, and here) that is hegemonic in the philanthropic world today–I have seen even conservative/classical liberal foundations who describe their “theory of social change” in their grant application materials–represents a problem of  semantic infiltration that sustains the constructivist rationality critiqued by Hayek, Vernon Smith, and others working in the classical liberal tradition.  In contrast to constructivist rationality (social order can be rationally constructed through intentional legislation), Hayek proposed that we embrace a evolutionary rationality (social order is the unintended outcome of behavior governed by law (neutral rules) and  social norms, which may be both stable and evolving).   

With the Christmas release of the film version of the stirring musical version of Les Miserables (I have been humming these tunes incessantly since seeing the movie last weekend!), we will likely see a renewed enthusiasm for the quest for social change.  We can see in the Occupiers the same sort of solidarity and passion of a young educated elite that we see in Marius and those who man the barricades in the streets of Paris:

At the barricades:

Do you hear the people sing?
Singing a song of angry men?
It is the music of a people
Who will not be slaves again!
When the beating of your heart
Echoes the beating of the drums
There is a life about to start
When tomorrow comes!

And in the Finale:

Will you join in our crusade?
Who will be strong and stand with me?
Somewhere beyond the barricade
is there a world you long to see?
Do you hear the people sing?
Say, do you hear the distant drums?
It is the future that they bring
when tomorrow comes!

 Stirring, indeed!  But the revolutionary spirit cannot be long sustained, and in fact “revolution” is the breakdown and ultimate contradiction of “social order”.  

The  finale of Les Mis makes explicit the the chiliasm to which Gray points us:

For the wretched of the earth
there is a flame that never dies.
Even the darkest night will end
and the sun will rise.

They will live again in freedom
in the garden of the Lord.
They will walk behind the ploughshare;
they will put away the sword.
The chain will be broken
and all men will have their reward.  

And this fundamentally marks the difference between utopian/meliorist/modern  liberalism and classical liberalism:  the classical liberal seeks a consistence between means and ends and thus must try to understand and effect not “social change” but to understand and align human action with the workings of “social processes.”   

There is no necessary failure of empathy, compassion, or charity on the part of the classical liberal, but there are key points the classical liberal has to hold in tension with his desire for a better world:

Nature, history and human nature do create constraints on the things men can construct. (See Sowell for explication, here and here.)

Men are not mere self-motile clay that can be expended in the construction of pyramids, enslaved for the production of wealth for others, or eliminated to purify the nation.  They are instead distinct persons possessing unique and unreproducible bundles of assets and liabilities and potentialities, capable of both passionate and rational action.  What they may become is utterly indeterminate from any human vantage point, and thus each individual merits the opportunity to be and become.  

Sympathy is a compelling foundation of classical liberal moral philosophy (per Adam Smith). However, sympathy is not what we think of as compassion but rather is a capacity of men to imagine themselves in the place of another, which is a boon to interpersonal communication and identification and thus the foundation of social learning.

The imaginative capacity that enables sympathy is also the capacity that enables men to reflect on their own actions from the vantage point of the impartial spectator.  To imagine that there are witnesses to our actions, to eschew the very possibility that we can retreat into a tower of complete privacy, is fundamental to the classical liberal viewpoint.  The classical liberal is NOT the antisocial atomistic individual, but is rather the imaginative man capable of encountering other men with an attitude of epistemic equality that enables us to transcend the crude determinisms enjoined not only by Marxism but also by “liberal” race, class and gender theories and their politics.

Good intentions do not always lead to expected and desirable outcomes (unintended consequences run rampant).  

A humility about the power of human action does not, however, necessitate a paralytic fatalism that some might see in the principles of evolutionary rationality.  This, in fact, is the importance of James Buchanan‘s explorations of the normative vision of classical liberalism and his explication of what we might call a “constitutionalist rationality” that holds that human action is the business of man, that effective social coordination is best accomplished through structures of reciprocal exchange,  that community is enhanced by the availability of “a single set of cultural norms (including language) [that] facilitates interpersonal understanding” (Buchanan, Why I, Too, Am Not a Conservative, p. 83), and that the market-social order depends on both a constitutional settlement (rule of law) as well as an ongoing constitutional conversation that renews the principles on which the order depends.

In the end, the classical liberal believes in the human enterprise, but is called away from the enthusiasms of the revolutionary and the protagonists of “social change” and depends a great deal on the necessity of prudence and judgment and the virtues of hope and humility.  As we explore more deeply the business of philanthropy, it would seem these are fitting virtues for Samaritans among us as well. 

The classical liberal, we must conclude, is simply called to be cautious about the adjective “social”.  As Buchanan puts it:

There is, and can be, no social or collective purpose to be expected from the process of interaction; only private purposes are realized, even if under the idealized operation of the structure, and even if collectivized institutions may be instruments toward such achievements.  To lay down a “social” purpose, even as a target, is to contradict the principle of liberalism itself, the principle that leaves each participant free to pursue whatever it is that remains feasible within the limits of the legal-institutional parameters. (56)

That Communism, or Fascism, or modern liberalism might pursue the legitimacy of “law” through some legislative body or even through some mimicry of liberal constitutionalism is no excuse for the evil that collectivities can do to people.   We must tell the history true.  And we are enjoined to understand how we work together to order states, nations, communities, corporations and private associations in ways that will never eliminate evil but will neither endorse it through our laws, legislation, social norms, social institutions or the stories we tell ourselves about a perfect society to come.  Utopia, of course, means no place, at least in this dimension of time and space.