It’s staggering to realize just how un-liberal so-called liberals can be. If you want to see how fundamentally incapable the left is of envisioning how to operate in a world without strict social controls, then check out this post from Amanda Marcotte, and in particular these paragraphs. (Language warning)
Incidentally, the sexual health debate suffers from the same problem. Even if you accept (which I don’t) the premise that abstinence is inherently good, and that’s what people “should” do, I have the same response: So what? You can say “should” until you’re blue in the face, and people are still going to #$%^. If you actually want to fix the problems of STD transmission and unintended pregnancy, you have to deal with people how they are, not how they “should” be. Same with food consumption and exercise. I guess people “should” exert often-extraordinary levels of self-discipline, but they don’t, because they’re human. Meet them where they are, not where they “should” be.
We can’t fix people’s impulse control, but we can fix their environments through collective action. Interestingly, we can fix their environments so that they are better able to exert self-control. Self-control is neither a fixed quality nor completely under (oh irony) our control. Research has shown that pretty much everyone’s self-control diminishes when they’re mentally exerting themselves or stressed out. Simple fixes that separate mental exertion from eating time could do a lot to reduce over-eating. If that’s not possible, reducing temptation is always an option. Self-control is often only as strong as the environment it presents itself in. (Incidentally, I also reject the way that the sin framework around eating treats eating, which should be a source of pleasure. Demonizing eating is not the best approach here.)
I find this incredibly fascinating. What’s interesting is that in some sense, this kind of thinking isn’t so completely far afield from traditional conservatism. I think Marcotte and I would both recoil at the atomistic individualism of Thomas Hobbes. In fact if we want to dig deeper into political philosophy, what unites Rousseau and Burke (the intellectual forebears of the modern left and right, respectively) is their mutual rejection of Hobbes’ notion that man is not a social animal. Both would agree that mankind is fit for communal living, and we can’t quite go it alone.
But where they diverge – and where conservatives diverge from the progressive left – is their conception of how to organize societies. The left seeks a sort of top-down control that “forces people to be free.” In other words, the social structure itself has to be manipulated in such a way so as to motivate individuals into certain kinds of acceptable behavior. If you read through Rousseau’s Social Contract or his work on political economy and the government of Poland you see how Rousseau carefully constructs a civil society that offers the fig leaf of freedom, but in reality is a tightly controlled totalitarian state that really only offers the illusion of freedom.
This was the kind of thinking that Burke found to be intolerable, especially as the French revolutionaries brought Rousseau’s philosophy to life. Burke and his ideological heirs seek to empower the individual. It’s a bottoms-up approach to governance. Individuals must be granted the freedom to change society, but to do so in a way that does not inhibit personal autonomy.
What’s ironic about Marcotte’s sentiments about “realism” is that it is the conservative approach that is grounded in reality when it comes to the human condition. Conservatives recognize that no amount of social engineering is going to alter human nature. So we work from the premise that humanity is what it is, and seek to establish laws that work within that framework. While Marcotte is claiming to do just that, in reality she wants to use the government to transform man and make people more conformable to a certain preset ideal. Remember, these are the people that insist they’re all about choice and liberation. Sure they are, but only so long as they can manipulate the environment in order to prod individuals into certain behavior.
What’s more, leftists cannot conceive of a political order in which the state does not dictate a desired outcome. She is incredulous that there could be social conservatives who do not seek to impose their will by government fiat. It is inconceivable to her and to many on the left that people should advocate for certain positions but leave it up to free individuals to make those changes. This isn’t a problem that is confined to the left. The major problem with modern society is that we politicize everything to such an extent that most people cannot fathom how to operate outside of the context of government control.
Jeff Goldstein offers his own rebuttal to Marcotte in how own delightful way (language warning).