It’s ‘Tragic’ but it’s not ‘Right’

This post on the blog “A Life of the Mind” picks up on Steven Pinker’s comparison in his book The Blank Slate, of the Utopian and Tragic Visions, that, some argue, underpin ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ impulses. These ‘visions’ come from Thomas Sowell‘s famous book A Conflict of Visions. The great untested assumption underlying Sowell’s analysis is that changing social structures (from their present incarnation) amounts to changing human nature.

I just don’t think it’s that simple.

I’m very left wing (in the economic sense) and that ‘s largely because I subscribe to the Tragic Vision (I’m definitely not into Utopian progressivism when it comes to ‘human nature’).

Let me explain: I believe people under modern conditions are prone to becoming selfish [a hallmark of the ‘tragic vision’] hence their economic activity needs to be regulated and constrained. I believe rationality is highly flawed [another hallmark of the ‘tragic vision’], especially when it comes to understanding ourselves, hence the free market idea that each individual knows what’s best for themselves seems like utterly naive nonsense to me (whatever happened to belief in learning from the experience of our predecessors and wisdom of our elders, etc.?).

I believe in long-established institutions [a third hallmark of the ‘tragic vision’] such as family, community and the direct involvement in the lives of others that they both imply and obligate. Hence, I don’t like the privatisation of the nuclear family (encasing it in a ‘private home’ away from the extended family, neighbours and friends, etc.; each individual ‘going their own way’) and I definitely don’t like the ‘creative destruction’ inherent in how Schumpeter famously described capitalism, since the ‘destruction’ is largely aimed at our communities and families and the ‘creation’ is largely of profit and money.

For Schumpeter, the creation and destruction came from, and ‘only’ involved, “the … process of industrial mutation–if I may use that biological term–that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one“.

Of course, constantly transforming ‘economic structures’ has a not insignificant impact on the lives of countless millions of ordinary people – it’s like constantly digging a garden over immediately after planting seeds and then constantly promising those who need the full grown plant to eat in order to live that, never mind, there’ll be an unprecedented ‘bumper crop’ at some forever receding time in the future because the last dig will make the bounty even greater. Meanwhile, people’s lives are destroyed with every sod that’s turned.

In short, I believe in family and community stability [another hallmark of the ‘tragic vision’].

As indicated, all of the above sentiments stem from and are consistent with the so-called Tragic Vision. So why is the ‘tragic vision’ meant to be something that right wing ‘conservatives’ are predisposed to? And why are those on the ‘left’ meant to be all Utopians when it comes to human perfectibility?

What I think has happened, especially in America, is that the Tragic Vision has simply been tapped and co-opted by the right, not the left. There’s nothing inherently right wing about the tragic vision and nothing inherently left wing about the utopian vision. After all, don’t right wingers believe that free markets have a near magical ability to produce the best of all possible worlds (pretty utopian)? And, at the heart of many versions of neo-classical economics is the idea that individual actors are the best agents for making their own decisions because they will be most aware of the relevant information to make the best self-interested decisions?

Both of these latter assumptions – widely held by those with economically right wing leanings – are idealistic, utopian hangovers from the thinking of Enlightenment philosophers, who were themselves on a utopian mission to create a rationally ordered land (and world) of ‘liberty’ and ‘freedom’. The arrangement of the world in order to produce ‘liberty’ and ‘freedom’ is a utopian mission.

I should clarify that, for me (not being an American) ‘left’ and ‘right’ are principally economic positions (socialism and capitalism) and are not ‘cultural’ descriptors (e.g., ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’). The latter seems very confusing for me because I’m definitely not aligned with economic liberalism (the neo-liberalism of ‘Reaganomics’, Thatcherism, Friedmanism, the views of Hayek and the like) so I find it near impossible to understand how a conservative could in any way support such policies that have been so destructive of so many traditional ways of being.

Put simply, I’m a left wing conservative.

Economically, I’m very conservative which, of course, means that I believe that communities should provide collectively and cooperatively for their own welfare (the case with just about every previous society and culture in human history and prehistory).

I want to conserve those forms of economic organisation that have served our species so well for so long and have only recently been usurped by Johnny-come-lately ideas of economic individualism, the limited liability company, private property, etc..

My ‘utopianism’ simply involves re-creating social structures that we are well suited to and that have been undermined by the economic structures that have been created (and actually imposed on much of humanity) over the past couple of hundred years. I don’t believe people are infinitely ‘perfectible’ but I do believe that a more human social and economic structure would bring out what best there is in humans.

In fact, if you look at much of the work on neurodevelopment, our reasoning capacities, our emotional and moral life and our general psychology, evolution has actually designed us primarily as a social species and one which lives (or dies) by the degree of cooperative skills – and our ability to achieve inter-individual cooperation – we each come to embody.

We certainly aren’t a ‘hive’ species but we are set up both to exert and to be susceptible to social influence. It’s the sea we swim in and the sea, in fact, without which those things called ‘persons’ (as opposed to ‘human beings’) could not exist.

What we aren’t is a race of supreme rationalists acting in our individual self-interest. In a sense, you could say that our ‘genes are selfish’ so that we don’t have to be.

The biological sciences may well support the Tragic Vision but, for me, that means they are providing support for economically left wing politics. Intuitively, that sounds about right: People prefer to work together for a common goal rather than for some other individual’s goal simply in exchange for money to further the pursuit of their own individual goal.

The reason for that predisposition is simple: We individually and collectively benefit from it, on average over the long haul. For natural selection, it’s the long-run average that inevitably matters because natural selection just keeps on keeping on, well beyond our individual lives. As some have put it, ‘nature has done our thinking for us’ on these matters that go well beyond our meagre cognitive abilities to calculate.

So, we’re ‘set up’ to coordinate our efforts with others: Market individualism tends to frustrate this impulse by erecting arbitrary, competitive barriers between the efforts of individuals. It generates incredible non-complementary duplication of effort, despite its famed ability to create ever greater division of labour.

Economic individualism depends upon the worst form of social coercion (after direct force) – economic coercion. This is why proponents of market systems seem obsessed with eliminating all non-market, non-monetary means for people to provide for themselves materially: Such non-market opportunities reduce the coercive capacities of markets.

That’s why the privatisation of land is almost always the first goal in establishing market economies since it means that simply to occupy a place on the earth you need to pay and, hence, engage with markets – don’t be persuaded into believing that it’s been done to ‘improve’ the ‘productivity’ of land and, therefore, has ultimately been imposed by governments for the greater good. The greater good never came into it.

Humans are group animals, which is not so bad. Groups have the ability to honour individuals and respect their individuality while, at the same time, they can almost always achieve a consensus around the ‘common good’.

Thinkers like Hayek claim it is impossible to achieve non-coercive consensus because of the supposed infinite diversity of human desires and values.

Obviously he didn’t understand what it means to be part of the same species. We have a common human nature to provide the basis for a consensus.

Importantly, I really do mean ‘consensus’, not some top down imposition of a ‘vision’ or ‘plan’. The tragic vision is actually a recipe for the distribution of fundamental power to relatively small groups.

It is not, as is well known, in favour of concentrating power in few hands, far removed from the lives of the many (e.g., in a state). But, it is also not a vision that suggests that power is best dispersed to the level of the individual (hence the support for social institutions such as family and community).

In fact, in my case, this balancing act often means that I support a state apparatus as a counter to leaving individuals to sink or swim in an overly individualist sea.

So, if it’s not the state and it’s not the individual, what size of community should have such fundamental power? How about Dunbar’s number as a first ‘best guess’? (More on this later.)

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3 Responses to It’s ‘Tragic’ but it’s not ‘Right’

  1. Pingback: The tragedy of the Right | a life of the mind

  2. Pingback: Ten Degrees of Difference: Is it all just a tragic misunderstanding? | The Political Scientist

  3. Pingback: The limits of human nature – and books I have read: Part I | The Political Scientist

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