The Totalitarian Mind at Work

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).

19 Responses to The Totalitarian Mind at Work

  • WK Aiken says:

    ” She is incredulous that there could be social conservatives who do not seek to impose their will by government fiat.”

    We call them “Libertarians.”

  • elm says:

    Uggg. This article need a potty-mouth alert. When I see that word, you know, it starts with an f and ends with a k, it gives a jolt. I’m no prude, but this word is one that has given something beautiful a gutterly connotation. It still shocks me, no matter where it comes from.

  • WK Aiken says:

    I went to the original article, and I got to this statement, regarding the Christian view of gluttony as a sin:

    “Under the sin framework, gluttony is a sin, and the only proper response to sin is punishment.”

    With that underlying nugget of ignorance informing the entire rest of the piece, there’s really no need to go much farther, other than to say “Sure, if you’re a Godless fascist.”

    Standard leftist ideology – do wrong, get stomped. They think that way, therefore everybody must think that way, because that way is the only correct way . . .

    It goes on and on and on.

  • Jonathan says:

    What fun with the use of the term “self-control”!

    Of course, self-control is difficult and need not apply to abstinence, but when it comes to birth control pills (because nobody ever forgets to finish antibiotics) or condoms (Hold everything until I get this on!), then self-control matters!

    Which is why, among other reasons, that birth control other than abstinence will always need abortion to back it up…just in case.

  • Clinton says:

    Thanks for turning me on to the Jeff Goldstein/ProteinWisdom blog. Sure, there’s
    some salty language, but I haven’t laughed so hard in days!

  • Bartolome says:

    The above articles contains, I believe, one serious and provable error. Let me explain.

    The above article contained this statement: “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.”

    Yes, that is a tenet of the creed of most forms of political Conservatism in the USA, the UK, etc.

    That may be a pretty sound principle by which to plan and run a human government.

    And if human government was all there is, then the principle stated in that quote would be a good one to set at the center of one’s life. Many political Conservatives do in base their lives on that principle.

    But human government is not the only government there is. It is not even the most important government.

    For Christians, there is the government which is called, in the Bible, “The Kingdom of God” It is also called “The Kingdom of Heaven.” It is a government. It is not just in Heaven and not just in the Afterlife. It is here now, too. Christ is the King of this government. It is a real government.

    While Christians strive to be good citizens in whatever worldly nation they happen to live in, in this world, they consider the Kingdom of Heaven to be their main and primary government, and the consider Christ to be their highest and supreme governor. Some shouted “We have no king but Caesar!” (Jn. 19:15) but for Christians it is more like “We have no governor/president/king but Christ.” Jesus said, “My kingdom (government) is not of this world.” Jn. 18:36

    Political Conservatives preach that “no amount of social engineering is going to alter human nature,” and Christians agree.

    But Christians do not then come to the conclusion that human nation cannot be changed at all. Many political Conservatives do seem to draw the conclusion that human nature cannot be changed at all. That, far from being wisdom, far from being sanity, is a heresy, an error, a disastrous misunderstanding, and may for some even be a sort of self-serving propaganda, a vile misanthropy, or a weapon of class warfare.

    Christ came into the world and taught, suffered, died and was resurrected for one reason: To change the human nature of those willing to hear the Gospel, repent, believe, and love God and love neighbor, stranger, sinners, and enemies.

    A Pessimistic, Misanthropic, Burkean Secular Conservatism is just as bad as a Naive, Optimistic Rousseauian Secular Progressivism. That’s what I think. I think that is the view found too in the writings of Cardinal Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVi, and Blessed Pope John Paul II.

    John Paul II spoke of creating a “Civilization of Love.” That all depends on leading more personal souls to the practice of Love They Neighbor As Thyself. Doing that very much goes against natural human nature.

    All of us, whether Left-Learning or Right-Wing Learning, tend to be selfish, self-centered, greedy, and egoistic. Only by coming to live more and more in the love of Jesus Christ can that change. But it can change. Natural human nature can give way to reborn “saved” human nature. That is our only hope as individuals and as a Society/Civilization.

    Freedom, as conceived by Libertarians/Capitalists, is no more the answer than is the social engineering of Progressives/Liberals.

    Love is the answer. Laugh if you want. But the love preached and demonstrated by Jesus Christ is the answer to everything, and is the only answer.

    All who dedicate their lives to earnestly do everything according to “Love They Neighbor As Thyself” are good citizens of The Government of God, and are doing the most important thing for time and eternity, this world and the next.

    Am I wrong? Am I deluded? If so, I hope some good person will correct me.

  • “Am I wrong? Am I deluded? If so, I hope some good person will correct me.’
    Yes you are wrong, since there are many practical aspects of government that have little to do with love but are essential nonetheless. For example, trade policy. Trying to work out a trade policy based on the Sermon on the Mount would be a frustrating and foolish exercise since the Sermon on the Mount has nothing to do with trade policy. Christ said render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s for a reason, and history, as always, bears out His wisdom. Confusing religion and politics always ends up badly. Religion sets out some basic truths, such as the sacredness of life, but pretending that Christianity gives us a roadmap on most political questions is deeply mistaken. One would like to think that a nation of fervent Christians would produce a utopian civilization, but History does not bear this hope out. As Catholics we are called to follow Christ and also be good citizens, and those tasks impose different duties upon us. Ultimately we will be judged on how well we follow Christ, but our duties as citizens are not thereby made meaningless and are always highly important for our well being and the well being of our fellow countrymen.

  • anzlyne says:

    Yes our duties as citizens are meaning-FULL and are always highly important for our well being and the well being of our fellow countrymen —
    Each part of our life does all come down to love, I think. I wonder if I misunderstood you Mr. McC. – I don’t see how we can keep our business or trade policies or Anything separate from our call to Christian love.

  • An example Anzlyne: what would Christian love have to say about the following legal rules:

    1. The rule against hearsay.

    2. The rule against perpetuities.

    3. The rule in Shelley’s case.

    In regard to Driving Under the Influence what would love have to say about whether a driver should have his license automatically suspended?

    I disagree that each aspect of our life comes down to love. It is the most important aspect, but there are plenty of other aspects, many of them highly technical in nature, and all of which impact on government, that we ignore to our peril.

  • Paul Zummo says:

    Bartolome,

    Thank you for your comment. When we talk about “human nature,” I think we are simply referring to a very basic concept: original sin and the fallen nature of man. Conservatives, I think, have a greater appreciation this very basic concept and that in turn shapes how they approach politics. It comes down to Augustine and the concept of the “city of man” and the “City of God.” Augustine was a “realist” when it came to the city of man, and conservatives all the way through Burke have trodden in that path. It’s not as though we think humans cannot change or better their lives, we just understand that we cannot perfect man and expect to achieve political utopia.

    By the way, I strongly disagree that Burke is any kind of pessimist. In fact the reason he spoke out so strongly against economists, sophisters and calculators is because they stripped away all the beauty of life. Burke’s writings teem with wonder and awe about the world. His historical sense if guided by an appreciation for the wisdom of the ancients, and his understanding of the great chain that links all generations is the bedrock of his philosophy.

  • Bonchamps says:

    “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.”

    Well put, sir. And without the ability to imagine a state of liberty, how could we ever actually possess one?

  • anzlyne says:

    Yes. thank you.
    My idea is just that our Christian love must be brought to bear on all our actions and choices- in each particular of our lives.. I can’t separate my politics from my religious sense, I can’t separate out my business decisions either.
    I can be prudent about business matters, and in fact I am ( and all of us are) called to the virtue of prudence. But, as they say, Stalin may have been prudent or careful and effective or wise in his actions, but he cannot be said to have the virtue of prudence because his actions weren’t oriented to the Good. So our actions and choices in life are to be ordered to God Who is Love. Jesus boiled down the commandments to the Great one– all the legalisms are prudential judgments– and as Christians those judgements should be based on Love…. not easy!

    a boss we knew was a vocal active Christian in his church, but he kept his Christianity in his back pocker when he made some business decisions.–

  • DarwinCatholic says:

    I suppose it’s typical of the liberal/conservative divide that Marcotte despairs of the idea of telling people to control themselves, but imagines that organizational competence is such that the government could set out, say, to change people’s environments in order to make it harder for them to overeat and succeed.

    Really? And those some troublesome individual people whose impulse control she doesn’t trust won’t find some way to sneak in a bag of dorritos if they want to?

  • Wayne says:

    Don’t you see Darwin, those Doritos won’t be in the “environment” anymore. Or if they are, they will only have a certain number of calories per serving and will only come in single serving bags. Well, at least that’s what I’m reading into the end of Amanda’s thinking. Only those things the government wants you to see, eat, hear, taste, smell, and experience will be in your environment. But don’t worry, we’ll all be much freer.

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