Posted by: spacewritinguy | October 18, 2008

Human Nature and the Elections

I’ve heard some wildly various and unconvincing arguments recently for why someone should elect Barack Obama. I love the bit from the lady who accused me of hating poor people. She seemed to think that anyone who was “too rich” should have their “extra” money turned over to the government, which would turn it over to “the poor” as they saw fit. This individual seemed to think that individual charity was impossible or irrational. She further thought that government could better and more wisely distribute the goods of society than the individual. Oh, really now!?

Let’s remember, please, that government is administered by human beings, just as the “hated” private sector is. Human nature is what it is: greedy, selfish, hateful, mistrusting, power-mad, and corruptible (okay, there are virtues, too, but that’s not the point of this argument). The environment in which those behaviors are exercised does not change the fundamental facts of human nature. Greed and corruption exist on the governmental level. Senators or Congressmen can be bought and sold. Civil servants can be arrested for bribery. Presidents can be caught trying to cover up crimes (Clinton) or undermine their political enemies (Nixon). And don’t tell me that the Supreme Court somehow allows only the best, brightest, and most incorruptible to ascend to its ranks.

So: why would one trust the government to “better” distribute the goods of society? Another friend of mine suggests that if we just made everyone materially equal, then conflicts of that nature would stop. I have no problem with making the poor richer. But I disagree with the notion that the ONLY way to make that happen is to make the rich poorer. And, again, taking from the rich to give to the poor will NOT change human nature. Consider the effort in Hawaii to provide “universal health care” to poor children in Hawai’i. The program is being closed down. And why?

People who were already able to afford health care began to stop paying for it so they could get it for free

The lady who I argued with about helping the poor didn’t understand my point about the difference between “help” and “support.” Of course people are going to try to take the “free” route if it’s available. That requires a simple understanding of human nature. However, I believe liberals are warped by the thought of Rousseau, who believed that there was a fundamental divide between human nature and civilization and that human nature was inherently good. If human nature was inherently good, one would not need government, as the American Founding Fathers readily recognized:

But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? 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.

That is something Obama has yet to realize–this nation was founded on a realistic view of human nature, not an idealistic one. Rousseau and his inheritors (such as John Rawls) believe that if you take away all differences imposed by society, that human beings will naturally be able to cooperate and behave civilly. Realists are not so sanguine about our species. They realize that, because of differences in ability, human beings will always be unequal to some degree. Therefore, to expect an equality of result–be it in intellectual, physical, or moral endeavor–is unrealistic. The best one can hope for, the original Americans decided, was to allow for equality of opportunity and limited government, and to let individuals duke it out amongst themselves in the free markets of ideology and economy. The Rousseau disciplines, on the contrary, have always resented inequality of result, and have thus sought to use government as the means of enforcing that equality. One can observe the history of the French Revolution to see how badly THAT idea has turned out–and Europe keeps trying.

Americans need to ask themselves a very serious question: do they prefer a society that guarantees equality of opportunity or equality of result? The types of government required for each end are very different.


  1. I find it fascinating that the discussion of charity/support to the poor is framed not in diametrical opposition by the conservatives and liberals, but in precisely the same terms using almost precisely the same arguments.

    The conservative argument is that human nature is not fundamentally good, and that liberals have to assume it is in order to believe the government is better suited to providing charity or support to the less fortunate.

    The liberal argument is that human nature is not fundamentally good, and that conservatives have to assume it is in order to believe that individuals, left to their own devices, would be charitable at all.

    Equality of opportunity is the aim I personally feel we should strive towards, but I don’t trust individuals to guarantee that equality at all. The individual, being fundamentally self-interested (not a moral statement…merely an observation of evolutionary reality), has absolutely no reason to desire that other individuals succeed unless a tangible bottom-line benefit can be proven to them personally. I don’t particularly trust the government to do so, but at least there I get some degree of transparency and the ability to file FOIA requests if something stinks. Not to mention a chance every couple of years to toss bums out if I think they’re making a mess of things.

  2. Re: human nature on the individual vs. the governmental level

    You might have a point. Followers of Adam Smith hold that human nature is a) inherently rational and b) even if it isn’t, individuals acting in their own interests will still advance the market and general quality of life better than any so-called enlightened government acting on behalf of the common good. There is an element of faith in “the invisible hand,” just as there is in thinking that particular political figures are “magical” and can truly make the government a better place (the Kennedys, Obama).

    Here’s the thing about granting more freedom to the individual and less freedom to the government: individuals acting in the common market (outside of acts of war, terrorism, etc.), by themselves or even as managers of businesses, can do less direct, serious harm than individuals with the authority of government behind them. Governments can do more harm simply because they have the full power of government behind them to enforce their decisions.

    And yes, I too look forward to the opportunity to throw a few bums out.

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