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Of Liberals, Conservatives, Rationalists, and Moral Foundations


The world is pretty good; all we have to do is not ruin it.

Stated this way, the liberal attempt to rely on only two-and-a-half of the six moral foundations seems far riskier than it's worth. But you get the opposite impression if you consider the cumulative effect over the last three centuries from these efforts. Recent books like Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist, Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature, and Paul Seabright's The Company of Strangers make clear the tremendous progress the human race has made as a result of Enlightenment ideas: Progress in science, justice, comfort, safety, freedom, education, and culture.

There are many types of liberals and conservatives, and many people who do not fit neatly into either category. But here is a good working definition for the purposes of this essay: A liberal is someone whose main fear is backsliding or just stagnating in progress toward an enlightened society; a conservative is someone whose main fear is the damage done by failed government efforts to accelerate progress toward an enlightened society.

Most liberal policies have superficial appeal. If there are unemployed people and useful work to be done, it's a win-win for the government to hire them to do the work. If people are paying extortionate rents and enduring mistreatment to live in overcrowded, unhealthy, and dangerous slums, let's bulldoze the neighborhood and build clean, healthy housing and rent it at fair prices. If people are poor and oppressed, free them and give them the resources they need to prosper. If inefficient industries are polluting the environment and mistreating workers, let's discourage them with taxes and use the revenue to subsidize exciting new green and worker-friendly industries.

F. A. Hayek in The Road to Serfdom explained one problem. Things are always far more complicated than they appear in simple descriptions of liberal policies. However complex the legislation, however much is spent on implementation, however honest and competent the administrators are, it is impossible to aggregate the detailed local information necessary to do these things right. On top of this, the legislation is often flawed, people skimp on implementation, and administrators may be dishonest or incompetent.
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