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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.

That doesn't mean policies always fail, but it does mean results are unpredictable and hard to measure. It also means that good and bad effects will spill over to all aspects of society and play out over long periods of time. This leads to frustration at the slow progress and unpleasant side effects. Even if policies are more successful than average in the long run, there will be periods of reversals and embarrassments.

The government might react by shutting some programs down and modifying others, and proceeding by slow trial and error to eventually get to a good result. But that seldom happens. Instead, the government may be voted out or overthrown, or the failed policies may create constituencies that keep them alive. The worst result is that the government blames saboteurs and enacts repressive laws to force its failed policies to work. The well-intentioned originators of policies are forced out of power, and replaced by increasingly brutal apparatchiks who in turn enlist increasingly nasty secret police.

Jonathan Haidt gives a different explanation, which also has some validity. The moral foundations that liberals want to replace with safer, rational versions represent essential social glue. Yes, retribution has led to cycles of terrible violence, but we need strong and fair rule of law, and tolerance of unequal outcomes if they are arrived at fairly. Loyalty can lead people to do terrible things, but it remains an essential virtue. Respect for authority impedes progress, but no respect for authority results in chaos. Preserving sanctity is the motivation for many acts of civility without which we are uncivilized. Forcing liberal reforms without respect for these principles causes harm to organic society. It can be like aggressive surgery that leads to the famous line, "The operation was successful, but the patient died."

The picture drawn above might be called rational liberals and conservatives. There are also ignorant people in both camps: Liberals unaware of the terrible problems their policies have sometimes caused, and conservatives unaware of the tremendous gains civilization owes to liberal reforms. Another group is aware of these things, but doesn't think that they're so bad. Some people blame all failures of liberal policy either on evil opponents, or claim the policies were not really liberal in the first place, or even that "Hitler wasn't so bad." Some conservatives claim the world was a better place in the past, maybe even that "slavery had its advantages."
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