What does original sin have to do with Liberals, Conservatives and Politics?

So interestingly enough Pope Francis just made comments indicating he thinks that the Devil is real (not an allegory or a symbol of evil..)  They can be read here .  I wonder what the press will make of such retrograde comments. That is not the kind of medieval thought they like.  I would wager they won’t report it.  Still it sort of screws up the liberal Pope narrative a bit, or does it?  In any case it makes for a nice lead in to a discussion of the limits of the liberal versus conservative framework borrowed from politics is, when discussing religion.  Let’s proceed to explore this a bit.

Although we do not want to discuss mostly politics, for the sake of this topic we need to think a bit about what it means to be a liberal versus a conservative in political terms.  Unfortunately reading what each group says about themselves will do little good, since they tend to say they favor the same things! For Example the Liberal group “think progress” says it favors freedom, opportunity and responsibility, which of course virtually every conservative group also claims to favor! In fact it would be an unwise political strategy to claim to favor a platform of coercion, lack of opportunity and irresponsibility. Things will become clearer if we recall that our wills can only be attracted to goods. Sin and error occur when we sacrifice a greater good for a lesser good or pursue a good in an elicit manner ( which amounts to the same thing, so the man who commits adultery pursues a lesser good, sexual pleasure for example, but sacrifices a greater good, fidelity to his wife, and the love he owes her. By doing this he acts in a manner that is sub human, and since it sacrifices higher goods, directs us away from our proper end as human beings and thus is sinful.) 

So let’s get back to politics.  Most would agree that Liberals favor activist government. The government should do things to make society better, fairer, and make people’s lives better. Although paradoxically they oppose government intervention in some spheres. They tend to oppose laws that enforce traditional morals, are pro-choice on abortion, oppose anti- pornography measures as violations of free speech, have more libertarian views on things like prostitution and drug use. In contrast conservatives favor limited government. The conservative view is that government exists primarily to do a few limited kinds of things in order to create a climate in which individuals and nongovernmental associations can shape society. It is not that conservatives would say they are indifferent to social problems, but that such problems are usually made worse by large scale government actions, and government should confine itself to creating the conditions for other entities to thrive. For example unemployment is best addressed not through large scale government works programs, but through government having a stable currency, encouraging open trade and so forth, allowing business to thrive. Paradoxically on social issues conservatives favor more government restraint of individuals, as immorality causes civic breakdown and independent social entities can not thrive in that environment. Conservatives then will try to restrict vices such as drug use, prostitution and conservatives tend to be pro-life. They will favor laws to promote traditionally intact families for the same reason. 

Now of necessity we are painting with a broad brush. No doubt there are those conservatives who are libertarians on the social issues, and there are some pro-life liberals. There are liberal feminists strongly opposed to pornography, there are conservatives who tend to think the war on drugs a failure and a government intrusion on personal liberty.  I am not trying to capture every shade of political belief, but rather describe basic types. If we can dig deeper to the underlying philosophy behind each type we will clearly see how it relates to our primary concern which is religion in general and Catholicism in particular.

The economist Thomas Sowell (himself a conservative) has put forward the concept that liberals and conservatives have a different basic “vision” of the world. I think there is a deep insight here. Sowell talks about this here . I think one really must watch the whole interview, and ideally read the book, but I will do my best to quickly summarize his thesis. As we will see it goes a long way to understanding the overlap with the liberal and conservative theological categories.

Sowell would argue that liberals have an “unconstrained vision”. This means that they see human nature as essentially malleable, and basically perfectible. Most problems can be fixed and ultimately with enough wisdom and intelligence and the “right” social structures being put in place the world can be made perfect, or nearly perfect. There is no problem that cannot be solved. As a corollary humanity is basically good and social problems are the result of flawed social structures that can be corrected with human ingenuity. In its extreme form the goal is utopia. Its model would be the French Revolution, in which the basic idea was with the right leadership, governed by superior reason, and free of the superstition of the Church, a perfect society could be made.

Conservatives on the other hand have the “constrained vision”. The constrained vision sees human nature as fixed and inherently not perfectible. In that case government is a necessary evil as Thomas Paine put it, and exists mainly to do create enough structure to society that evil does not run rampant and that basic rights are protected. The vision is the American revolution in which a federal government with limited powers was created to do certain basic things, print money, have an army, encourage free trade between the states, but was specifically prohibited from doing other things, and was structured so as to have internal checks and balances between those who would wield power. The fundamental theme is laid out in the Federalist Papers by James Madison. As he put it:

If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.

Now to be sure most liberals and most conservatives would not necessarily articulate what they believe in these terms. A “vision” in this sense is not necessarily a completely consciously held set of premises. Most people are not inclined to think deeply about the philosophical premises which drive their political choices. This tends to be something political scientists and philosophers think about. Still most of us have a basic set of fundamental biases and tendencies which we acquire from education, life experience and so forth, which we use to frame new experiences. It is through this prism that we approach issues, and to this extent as a rough sketch the two visions described by Professor Sowell are useful. They explain a lot of things.

What would someone expect the approach of someone with the unconstrained vision be to problems?  Well let’s take poverty. Since people are inherently good and noble, if there is poverty, it must be that there are unjust social structures, or inadequate ones. If someone smart enough and noble enough was in power, a just planned economy could be devised that helps the poor. Government of course is the tool to do this. Notice also that such a vision typically holds human wisdom and skills in very high esteem, so reliance on experts, ( scientists, the academia) to guide policy is typically imbedded in this approach. People without expertise need to be guided by experts.  Paradoxically however personal autonomy in moral matters is also seen as a value. If human nature is malleable and perfectible, and then it follows we need to construct our own vision of what the goals of humanity are or should be. At some point the exaltation of humanity becomes so great that the Vision becomes one of Man without God, and traditional morality based on a fixed human nature is out the door. Very often the vision of building utopia tends to even suggest some things which would traditionally be seen as immoral are useful and necessary to build the perfect society.  It is no accident that the French revolution was atheistic and eventually resulted in tyranny, as was the Communist revolution. As Whittaker Chambers said in his classic work “witness” this is a very old vision, it dates back to the Garden of Eden when it was said ye shall be as Gods, it is ultimately the vision of man without God. Now to be fair not all liberals are atheistic communists! But the basic vision if taken to its logical conclusion leads where it historically leads.

The Constrained vision of course is different. Human nature is fixed by our creator. The Declaration of Independence states we are endowed by our creator with certain unalienable rights, and that the government exists more or less to protect those rights.  The constrained vision is skeptical of experts, not so much because they dislike science, but because they distrust hubris. Power (even intellectual power) corrupts. So they would see poverty as Jesus did ( the poor you will always have with you) and the primary solution would be private alms giving rather then massive government manipulations of the economy. The sense would be that few people are smart enough to know how to create and economic system that would end poverty, and someone who thinks such a system could be created is so arrogant they should not be given power in any case. While experts have their place it is limited, and true wisdom is not found in really smart individuals, but it the collected action of millions of individuals acting and interacting with each other in the market. Think wikipedia, and crowd funding. Also think of this fine little essay ” I pencil.. which can be viewed here.

In terms of traditional morality however, they would view it as derived  from fixed human nature and natural law. Since the government exists to secure basic rights they would be sympathetic to the government acting to restrain individuals from violating the rights of others. Since a certain basic level of virtue was thought necessary to preserve individual freedom, government could act to preserve this basic level of civic morality. Morality being understood as what was traditionally agreed upon as deriving from natural law.  John Adams said

Statesmen, my dear Sir, may plan and speculate for Liberty, but it is Religion and Morality alone, which can establish the Principles upon which Freedom can securely stand. The only foundation of a free Constitution is pure Virtue, and if this cannot be inspired into our People in a greater Measure than they have it now, They may change their Rulers and the forms of Government, but they will not obtain a lasting Liberty. They will only exchange Tyrants and Tyrannies.

Now do not misunderstand, I am not saying every conservative is religious, or all the founders were Christians. Again I am outlining in a broad brush two basic patterns of thought that describe a fundamental tendency to favoring a liberal politics versus a conservative politics. The ultimate goal is to relate these same fundamental patterns to how people with similar orientations might approach religious ideas. I realize that in many cases an individual may not be classified adequately has having either vision. They may have elements of both. Maybe they are apolitical Homer Simpson types existing to eat potato chips and drink beer on a couch somewhere while watching American Idol. What I am saying is that a basic tendency towards one approach versus another probably exists and the evidence for this is that it makes sense of what links views that would seem to have little to do with one another. So why are most liberals in favor of high levels of government spending and pro-choice on abortion? I think this basic idea of two competing visions helps explain this link.

Our next post will look at the connection to religion. Stay tuned. For those who find this interesting I highly recommend you take a look at Thomas Sowell’s books on this topic, “The Vision of the Anointed” and “a Conflict of Visions”As a hint going forward, which vision sounds more like the Christian vision? Do the words original sin mean anything to anybody?


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