Conservative thinkers like the economist Thomas Sowell and the Times columnist David Brooks have noted that the political right has a Tragic Vision of human nature, in which people are permanently limited in morality, knowledge and reason. Human beings are perennially tempted by aggression, which can be prevented only by the deterrence of a strong military, of citizens resolved to defend themselves and of the prospect of harsh criminal punishment. No central planner is wise or knowledgeable enough to manage an entire economy, which is better left to the invisible hand of the market, in which intelligence is distributed across a network of hundreds of millions of individuals implicitly transmitting information about scarcity and abundance through the prices they negotiate. Humanity is always in danger of backsliding into barbarism, so we should respect customs in sexuality, religion and public propriety, even if no one can articulate their rationale, because they are time-tested workarounds for our innate shortcomings. The left, in contrast, has a Utopian Vision, which emphasizes the malleability of human nature, puts customs under the microscope, articulates rational plans for a better society and seeks to implement them through public institutions.
Why, then, is there such a stark divide between Red and Blue America? That is, why is there such a geographic component to the divide? Pinker then talks about a theory we’ve discussed here in previous threads: that the Northeast was settled mostly by English farmers who had a less belligerent culture than the Scots-Irish who settled the inland South. The Scots-Irish came from sheepherding stock, and like other herder cultures, developed a culture of shame and honor as a way to inculcate and enforce taboos on stealing their livelihoods.
Though very few people farm or herd flocks today, these cultural norms persist, long after we have forgotten how and why they came about. Pinker adds that pioneers who headed west to settle the continent moved into conditions of anarchy, and had to come up with norms with which to govern themselves in the absence of a strong government. They developed the mores you would expect in such a context. If there’s not much government on the ground, how are you and your neighbors going to deal with the cattle rustlers who could steal everything you all have overnight? You develop a culture in which people are inhibited from behaving this way first by their own consciences, and second by fear that if they violate the norm, they stand to lose their lives in frontier justice. Pinker adds:
If this history is right, the American political divide may have arisen not so much from different conceptions of human nature as from differences in how best to tame it.
That’s a fascinating point to consider.
In the next hour, I will finish the second book on the French Revolution I’ve read this past month, this one a biography of Robespierre, who led the government during The Terror. I’ll have a lot to say about him and his role in the Revolution in a later post, but let me take this opportunity to say again how studying the French Revolution has made me far more conscious of how frail human nature is, and how precious political stability and order is, because so difficult to achieve. Reading about what Robespierre and other radical revolutionaries believed and pushed for, a modern American, even conservatives, finds himself agreeing with them, or at least agreeing that these goals are a reasonable part of mainstream political discourse.
The shocking things are the utopianism that guided the Jacobins (i.e., the belief, from Rousseau, that man is born good but corrupted by society; this led to the conclusion that if you wiped away every vestige of the Old Order, France would be free and virtuous), and their related willingness to kill and destroy anything that stood in the way of the Revolution. Robespierre was the embodiment of the Revolution, in that he was not personally corrupt, but rather principled to the point of being fanatical. He and his allies brought hell to France in an effort to reform the French at all costs, by imposing abstract theories onto messy humanity. Robespierre was the master builder determined to use the blade to make straight, smooth boards out of the crooked timber of humanity. He said that Terror is nothing but justice in the hands of the people, by which he meant the ends justify the very bloody means.
I bring this up because the French historical example complicates the red vs. blue model Pinker presents above. In revolutionary France, the Jacobins pursued left-wing goals, but did so with the kind of ruthless authoritarianism Pinker et al. associate with the right. Moreover, the Jacobins told themselves that the goals they pursued were perfectly rational, and that they were doing these things for the sake of the People. If the People didn’t want these things done for them, well, that just showed how corrupted the People were by aristocrats and priests, and how the People needed to be liberated by the new state from their customs and superstitions so as to embrace reason.
Result: the left-wing state that replaced absolute monarchy was willing to employ the same cruel, absolutist methods to tame resistance to its dictates as the (unjust, despotic) order it replaced. And they did so in the name of “liberty,” by which they meant people (and the press) was only to be free insofar as it agreed with the government. The more things changed…
What does this tell us about Pinker’s framework? Seems to me it suggests that it is useful, but limited. When I read the first passage I quote above from Pinker, I have no trouble seeing myself as a conservative in those terms, but I also believe that people are capable of achieving wisdom through reason, and that reform is possible through the application of reason in democratic debate. I have less confidence in this than your average liberal (which makes me a conservative), but I also have, I think, a respect for the need for balance. At least I try to cultivate that respect.
I find that American liberals, in general, are far more willing to use state power to remake society through the enforcement of utopian concepts. They see an injustice, or what they perceive to be an injustice, and they’re willing to cut down every tree behind which the perpetrators of that injustice would hide, convinced that they’re ridding the land of the Devil. What they often aren’t aware of is the degree to which they may turn themselves into the Devil in order to cast him out. In the end, Robespierre did not see himself as the Devil. He saw himself as a deeply principled patriot who put nothing ahead of the People and the Revolution. But he was a monster.
Look, conservatives are perfectly capable of becoming monsters, for their (our) own reasons. For example, we sanction torture for the sake of protecting the country. I’m not trying to tit-for-tat this; the temptation to tyranny is not a left-right thing, it’s a human thing. My point in this long digression is simply that while the red-blue division in American political and cultural life may be explained to a certain extent by differing conceptions of human nature and differing methods of taming the anarchy within every society, there is something to be said for the balance within Americans, or at least within the American order: a balance that allows for change, but within certain restraints. It’s far from perfect — people of the left and people of the right would identify different flaws in the model — but I think it uncontroversial to say that if we lose that, we’ve lost America.
Anyway, I say all this not to settle a discussion but to start one. I am sorry that it has taken me to the middle of my life to confront the French Revolution, and I find myself thinking now about how, starting from similar Enlightenment views of mankind, why ours went relatively well, but France’s was so tumultuous, destructive, and unstable. Considering this question in recent weeks, we have talked in this space about geographical and sociopolitical reasons (e.g., the monarch the American patriots were overthrowing was on the other side of the ocean), but thinking about the French Revolution in light of Pinker’s remarks on the left-right divide makes me curious about the role ideas about human nature and politics played in determining the very different courses of these two revolutions.