Perfection is the enemy

One of the most interesting things Timothy Ferris does in The Science of Liberty is to disentangle the notion of liberalism from the notion of progressivism. Rather than having a two-dimensional line running from conservatism to a combined progressivism/”liberalism,” he argues, those concepts should actually be three separate points on a triangle:

In one corner of the triangle stand the conservatives — upholders of tradition, captains of a sea anchor that steadies the ship of state, comfortingly reliable if sometimes awkward in the face of change. There will always be conservatives, because there will always be traditions worth conserving. if you’re a young person who detests conservatism and manages to enact radical reforms which in later years you are obliged to defend, in that respect you shall have become a conservative.

Occupying the second corner are the liberals — defenders of liberty, embracers of change, and friends of science.

In the third corner are those who emphasize equality of outcome over freedom of choice — the progressives, socialists, or social democrats. […] By any name, progressives can boast of many honorable accomplishments, some of their own instigation (universal health care and state pension plans such as Social Security) and others instigated by liberals (women’s suffrage and the thwarting of racial and sexual discrimination).

As the triangle illustrates, the distance from conservatism to liberalism is no greater than from conservatism to progressivism. This helps explain why a conservative can be liberal in certain respects, such as by upholding free markets or opposing the jailing of drug abusers, and why a classical liberal may be otherwise conservative (“neoconservative”) or progressive (“neoliberal”). It also clarifies the previously puzzling fact that many hard left progressives have borrowed doctrines and terminology from the hard right. As many demagogs have demonstrated, it is possible to oscillate between the left and the right without ever approaching liberalism.

Ferris calls for a return to the definition of “classical” liberalism, the original liberalism of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke and the Founding Fathers, rather than the current notion that conflates liberalism with the progressive left — “those who value equality over liberty, and are willing to put the force of government behind efforts to create greater political and economic equality even if personal freedoms are abridged in the process.” (If that makes him sound like a Tea Party supporter, it’s my fault for quoting him out of context; his argument is always nuanced and considered, as when he later recognizes that “[i]n practice, democratic nations constantly slosh around within the triangle, tending toward conservatism, liberalism, or progressivism at various times and for various reasons.”)

What, then, is liberalism? Simply put, as Ferris says, it’s the commitment to the general increase of personal freedoms — subject to governmental restrictions only, as John Stuart Mill wrote, for self-protection and the prevention of harm to others. Ferris elaborates:

Liberalism is inherently nonpartisan: It means freedom for all, or it means nothing at all. It maintains that everyone benefits from everyone’s freedom, and that all are diminished whenever one individual or group is not free. This precept can contort liberals into the uncomfortable posture known as tolerance. Some think that tolerance means treating all opinions as equally deserving of respect, but the point of liberalism is not that all views are equally valid. It is that society has no reliable way to evaluate opinions other than to let everybody freely express and criticize them — and, if they can garner sufficient support, to try them out.

This, I think, is crucial. Liberalism is not beholden to absolutist ideals (be they secular or religious) about how societies “should” be run; it is instead, as Ferris says, “an empirical, experimental philosophy that accomodates error and uncertainty.” The experimental nature of a liberal society is yet another way in which it parallels the methods of science (and which, as Ferris argues throughout, probably arose out of the scientific mindset). It’s worth noting that Ferris insists on caution in liberal social systems, just as caution is demanded in good science: “social experiments must only be instigated with the permission of the citizens involved, must be consistent with the legal rights of all, and must remain vulnerable to repeal if they fail to attain the wished-for results.” Similarly, utopian claims that promise a complete break with the past and fly in the face of everything we know about human nature must be rejected, just as science “demand[s] that new theories ought to answer to the data of past experimentation and observation; no new scientific theory is apt to find much acceptance if it claims to break with everything that has already been learned.”

Against perfection

But returning to the distinctions between liberalism and the other points on the triangle, I was struck by passages like these:

Liberalism’s acceptance of unpredictable change distinguishes it from conservatism, which concentrates on the lessons of the past, and from progressivism, which plans for a future about which it knows rather less than it sometimes claims.

The idea of liberalism’s comfort with uncertainty is one that he develops throughout: For instance, if we are to truly discuss and measure social progress, we must “[set] aside as imaginary the perfectability of human nature” and compare the present to the past “rather than to an imagined future, our concern being empirical facts about what has actually happened rather than the rise and fall of utopian ideas about what might have happened.” I’m reminded of the outcry of those on the far left against the newly-passed health insurance reform law; measured against their ideal of a government-imposed single-payer solution, the reform law is dismissed (and prematurely, as it has yet to take effect!) as a failure, regardless of what concrete benefits it might actually bring. In contrast, President Obama’s position is strikingly scientific, emphasizing the experimental nature of reform: “before we find out if people like health care reform,” he’s currently telling his audiences, “we should wait to see what happens when we actually put it into place.” You can’t get much more empirical than that. (Perhaps, in this regard, progressives are right to suspect that Obama isn’t truly one of them; I tend to think he’s a pragmatist, governing by experiment and evidence, unwilling to subscribe to the various dogmas of the Democratic Party without good reasons to back them up. Time will tell.)

Ferris returns to the notion of uncertainty as essential to liberalism (as it is to science):

Liberalism fosters scientific and technological progress by accommodating change without pretending to know where changes will lead. Unlike the political right, it denies that the answers to contemporary problems are necessarily to be found in the past; unlike the left, it refuses to sacrifice extant freedoms in order to attain progressive goals. “All institutions of freedom are adaptations to [the] fundamental fact of ignorance,” notes [liberal economist] Friedrich Hayek. “Nowhere is freedom more important than where our ignorance is greatest — at the boundaries of knowledge, in other words, where nobody can predict what lies a step ahead.”

The idea that liberalism promotes progress “by accommodating change without pretending to know where changes will lead” made me realize this about the American political spectrum: Progressivism and conservatism are, at heart, obsessed with perfection. Conservatism is in love with the perfection of an imagined past, progressivism with the perfection of an imagined future. Liberalism, if I’m reading Ferris right, is the scientist in the middle of these two philosophers, suggesting: “Let’s make space for these ideas to mix, to be discussed, to be tried, and to play themselves out.”

Religion as well, it seems to me, is in love with imagined visions of the perfect. An evangelical Christian once told me that my atheistic notions were misguided ideas arising out of “this badly-broken world.” In Good Without God, the Harvard humanist chaplain Greg Epstein describes this as “the Humpty Dumpty mentality”:

There is a Humpty Dumpty mentality that says the world — be it our personal lives or society as a whole or whatever — needs to be repaired. That things were once perfect and round and bright and shiny like an egg until they fell and broke into a million pieces, and now it’s our job to reassemble all the pieces.

The only problem with this mentality is — everything. Because there was never, ever, at any point in our lives or in human history, a perfect egg of goodness to shatter. Why would there be? For fourteen billion years of random, purposeless, unguided evolution, matter floated around, formed stars that lit up and were extinguished, and those stars eventually formed the material that formed you and me, and also lizards, and garbage dumps and concentration camps. Why would we expect any perfection?

The point, says Epstein, is to build, not to repair — to measure our progress not against an imagined Eden behind us nor an imagined Promised Land ahead, but simply by walking forward, step by step, falling down and getting up, dusting ourselves off, and slowly finding our way. Absolutist positions celebrate the perfect — but we would do well to remember that the perfect is the enemy of the good.


Adding: My previous thoughts on this book are here and here.

And while I find Ferris’s argument for science being the source for liberalism compelling, others may see it differently; the philosopher A.C. Grayling, for instance, who reviews the book positively but ends on this note:

I would suggest to Ferris that rather than taking the rise of science to be the literal cause of the growth of political liberty, they might be regarded as the joint outcome of an antecedent cause. I argued this in Towards The Light (Bloomsbury, 2007): aspirations to liberty of religious conscience in the 16th century rapidly evolved into demands for liberty of enquiry in all fields, including science; and once people had asserted the right to think for themselves without conforming to an orthodoxy on pain of death, they were able to ask questions both about nature and sociopolitical arrangements. On this view, science and democracy grew together from a fundamental impulse towards liberty; they are its joint fruits.

(Image h/t Path Dependent)


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