Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

A Human Political Philosophy

Over a week ago, I posted a longish piece, wondering how to rebuild a left wing political philosophy, in light of the fall of socialism, and the adoption and subsequent bastardization of Liberalism (especially economically) by the right. Where was the left to turn to rebuild their political philosophy? I’ve been musing about this for a while, and I think i’ve come to at least a first point of reference. But before I reveal it, I want to quote and compare it to this post by the new wunder-kid of Conservatism Ross Douthat.

it’s my impression – created, in large part, by reading Helen Epstein’s The Invisible Cure (and if there’s a devastating rebuttal to her arguments, please send it my way) – that an awful lot of the money poured into condom-promotion over the years would have much been better spent promoting “partner reduction” in cultures inclined to promiscuity and de facto polygamy instead. This isn’t the same as promoting abstinence exclusively, and indeed, Epstein is witheringly critical of some of the abstinence-only programs that American dollars have funded in the Bush era. But “partner reduction” is a lot more consonant with the Catholic Church’s longstanding position – that it’s better to promote monogamy and fidelity than to take promiscuity as a given and make it as safe as possible – than you’d think from the overheated talk about how the Vatican’s flat-earth position on condoms has cost millions of lives.

Note the way in which the problem is to be addressed: Through the explicit effort to change human preferences. In this, as in many other issues, especially those related to sex (such as Homosexuality) Conservatives hold a political philosophy in which Humans are imperfect, flawed, and ought to be changed (or controlled at the very least). This is a approach that runs back through the history of western political thought. Thomas Hobbes famous claim that life pre/outside society is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”, was used to justify giving the sovereign almost total control over the individual. So long as your security was assured, you could be shaped or changed in any way (Hobbes even re-defined freedom to mere mental desire, so as to help justify and claim labels such as “liberty” for his own totalitarian ideal). Plato’s Republic, perhaps the first piece of political science (at least that has survived) involves the designing of society entirely towards the aim of shaping and changing the next generation of citizens. People were to be classified as men of bronze, men of silver, and men of gold. Where you were born, so you died. But within, the state was to shape and make of you as it wanted and as most suited it’s aims. Change the word men for robot, and Plato’s republic would function identically. (And all this under the aim of seeking a “just” society.)

There is however an outlier within the Conservative Academy. One who is both the most endorsed and yet least understood figure in Conservative political Philosophy: Edmund Burke. Burke shares similar concerns about the imperfect, incapable human nature. Indeed these form the basis for his attack on the French Revolutionaries ideas about reshaping society towards an utopian idea. But instead of demanding his own chains on humanity to keep them from immoral or ignorant behaviour, Burke instead argues we already have a mechanism to deal with such concerns : Tradition. In tradition, and the wisdom of the past ages handed down, systems and institutions have been established which take into account these human excesses and account for them. In the market and (aristocratic) democracy we have the human need to compete (and defeat) given a peaceful, productive outlet. Titans of industry can prove their superiority via words and dollars, not spears or guns. And with a hereditary monarchy to stop anyone from thinking they could become the unrivaled leader, the passions and follies of humanity balance each other out.

Such a view still resonates today, especially within the neo-conservative revolution of the 1980’s & 1990’s. In their reaction to Socialism, they argued that it was entirely beyond the capability of man, any man, to control and sort the levers of the economy. No one could be that smart, that informed, that correct in their decision day after day, in industry after industry. Only the outcome of human desires & knowledge churned through competition in the market could appropriately provide the goods people want, and the price they are willing to pay. It is for this reason, that conservatives (and many others including myself) are understandably concerned about the Obama Administrations decision to involve itself in the way GM & Chrysler are run, including sacking the CEO and pushing for them to build energy efficient cars.

But such a conception is at stark odd’s with social conservative views (as held by the similarly free market, Obama disapproving) of Ross Douthat and his call for “partner reduction” schemes. This is a cognitive dissonance in conservatism that can not hold. And in here, there is an opportunity for the left

So Here is my first suggestion for rebuilding a Left wing political philosophy:

First Principle:That human nature can not be changed, only given outlets.
What this means, is not that we endorse let alone allow every low, defiled or debased act, but instead that when problems arise, it is not what is inside the person that needs fixing, but the system that funnels those needs into unhelpful or harmful ways.

Take the issue of AIDs that Douthat was talking about. Whilst social conservatives may push abstinence or the disquietingly termed “partner reduction”, the left can begin by accepting that yes people like to have sex. And no government, no law, no cop, no punishment in the world will possibly stop such behaviour. Instead we need a system that takes this into account and can in some way deal with the harms that come.

So we need to educate people so they are aware of the risks (such as STD’s, unwanted pregnancy), provide them access to ways to mitigate that risk should they go ahead (the selling of contraceptives from condoms to the pill), and the creation of a social environment where problems can be discussed and raised in open and honest ways. With these three steps, human lust is given a safe outlet. The act is still there, but the harm to individuals who indulge is low. And thus, the cost for the larger society is mitigated.

Or Drug use: All human civilisation has had drug use as an explicit part of their culture, both privately and publicly. Yet today the United States locks up over 253’000 people for drug offences. In fact 20% of their inmate population are there because of issues related to drugs. The aim may have been to remove those who sold, but surely significant percentages of that population are there simply for their own use of illegal substances. And despite the sentences getting harsher, and the prison population rapidly expanding, people still use drugs. People still like drugs. The Conservative policy here is of course to get even tougher, to denounce even louder, to decry and denigrate anything to do with drugs in any way (such as medical marijuana, or harm prevention strategies).
The left wing response however, taking a cue from Burke -where conservatives wont-, is to realise that drug use is a traditional element of human life and society and hence we need to design a system that takes it into account. Just as we abandoned prohibition for Alcohol, so it must be for other drugs (though carefully done, and with appropriate caution in making such a significant change). A system where such drugs are legal would do wonders for society at large. Not only would it promote individual liberty (which is my second Left wing principle and to which I shall return in a later post), but it would instantly end the black market drug trade that funds everyone from the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Cartels in Columbia to the bikie gangs in your local capital city. Likewise the health of citizens would likely improve, -not that drug use is healthy- but because legalising it would ensure some quality protection to stop added substances being added to the product (as is responsible for most of the deaths for those who think they are taking heroin or ecstasy but in reality it’s something else); likewise with the stigma and ‘cool’ of illegal drug use removed, the rate of drug use will drop (Drug usage, including Marijuana is lower in the Netherlands in every category compared to the USA). Meanwhile the government & economy would make billions from the new industry, all finally taxed, instead of slipping into thugs & criminals back pockets.

Whilst he wasn’t speaking only about drugs, US Democratic Senator Jim Webb makes the same point well, as part of his push for Prison Reform:

Let’s start with a premise that I don’t think a lot of Americans are aware of. We have five percent of the world’s population; we have 25 percent of the world’s known prison population. There are only two possibilities here: either we have the most evil people on earth living in the United States; or we are doing something dramatically wrong in terms of how we approach the issue of criminal justice,”

Each of these area’s ought to be acted on the context, circumstance and details of their own merits. But a clear philosophy can help guide us through the myriad of difficult policy choices. If we start by accepting that Human Nature is an irresistable force, then our attention shifts from trying to chain up or constrain what is harmful or distasteful, and instead giving it safe, even productive outlets. It’s part of the reason the market and democracy work so well, because they give a beneficial outlet to what is usually a harmful human desire: to compete and dominate. Political philosophy has no importance or relevance unless it places the human and the nature of humanity at the base of it’s understanding of the world. In this it is an alien cousin from philosophy with it’s otherworldly systems of logic or religion and it’s spiritual entities beyond the scope of this world.

So my First Principle of a new Left wing Political Philosophy: That human nature can not be changed, only given outlets.

Photo by Flickr user Pierre Stachurska, used under a Creative Commons license.

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