Liberalism and the Failure to Recognize Human Limitations

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2009 Five Presidents, President George W. Bush...

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Do you remember your mother or father telling you the old saw, “Money doesn’t grow on trees.” You were a child and wanted something your parents could not afford. You may have thrown a fit, but if your parents were responsible, they would not give in in order to teach you a valuable lesson about human limitation. Human beings can only buy as much as their resources allow. Any responsible parent knows that going into unnecessary debt can harm the entire family. A family receives a finite income every year. A family whose income is $50,000 a year should not buy a $40,000 car or a $1,000,000 home.

Businesses also realize that they can overreach–when a business overspends beyond the benefits and loses money, that one failure can sometimes destroy, or at the very least weaken–that business. The same thing is true with local governments and most state governments. California, with its past history of profligate spending, is an important exception–and an important lesson on recognizing that resources have limits.

The federal government has not learned these lessons. George W. Bush began the current spending spree, with the mainstream Republicans in Congress, wanting to gain votes, appropriating the money. When the banking crisis occurred, Mr. Bush and Congress spend billions on a massive bail out. But what Mr. Bush did is child’s play compared to Mr. Obama’s free spending ways. What was billions in debt quickly became trillions, to the point that there seems no end to the massive debt of the United States. China holds us over a more precarious pit than was present in the Bush administration. Problems with the Euro have helped the dollar to survive as a viable currency despite massive supply due to the government printing more money–but eventually supply and demand will catch up with the dollar. The threat of hyperinflation looms over the United States to a greater degree than in any recent decade except the 1970s.

The American people’s desire for a utopia on earth has driven massive spending. Unlike Europe, which spent freely due to people wanting la dolce vita after seven years of brutal war, American’s desire to benefit from government had already begun in the 1930s with the Roosevelt administration‘s rapid expansion of federal programs in response to the Great Depression. Americans, no longer disciplined by hardship and war, turned to government to solve social problems and to provide benefits for the middle class. The idea was that only government had the massive resources to fight poverty (Lyndon Johnson‘s “Great Society“)  and protect the middle class through social security, unemployment insurance, and Medicaid. Now government has been used by Mr. Obama to solve another financial crisis and to expand social welfare benefits. Cuts in defense spending are not nearly enough to make up for massive social programs. Thus the problem of debt is just as unsolvable in the United States as it is in Western Europe. Mother was right–money does not grow on trees–and the worth of money is not guaranteed by the government’s printing more bills.  Currency traders will not ignore economic reality forever. The United States, like Western Europe, will be driven to recognize its limitations if it must be driven kicking and screaming.

Classical liberalism is superior to social democratic liberalism, but it still has an overly optimistic view of human nature and often does not recognize human limitations. Many classical liberals believe that science and the private sector will create an ideal society, and such a belief can clash with economic and other human limitations. Adam Smith believed that a society made up primarily of virtuous people, civilized by Christianity and Western culture, would make the “invisible hand” work. With the breakdown of key virtues such as taking responsibility for one’s behavior and integrity, the capitalist system will be corrupted. Even if it were not corrupted, resources for the well-being of people are finite, not infinite. Science and the market can substitute for God just as much as “the People” substitute for God in Marxism.

The truth is that there is no ideal world that any economic system can make. The world will always be a mixed bag of good and bad. People can do what they can to alleviate the negative and “accentuate the positive” (as my late colleague Parker Wilson used to say). To do so with massive government aid programs or social engineering programs creates programs that almost always fail, and the government spends more money and goes deeper into debt. Because social democratic liberals cannot follow a mother’s or father’s aphorism that “Money does not grow on trees,” the country in which I was born and reared may become unrecognizable sooner rather than later.

“Creating” Reality vs. Respecting Reality

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Hill of Slane ruins

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Women go against the natural impulse to care for their offspring and kill their children via abortion. Academics and the media deny that marriage and the family are natural institutions and believe that marriage and the family are whatever we make them. The tradition, dating back thousands of years, of marriage being between male and female is denied by academics and judges. Children no longer have a mother at home and are reared in day care centers, and academics and the majority of the media rejoice. Pundits talk about “designer babies” created through genetic engineering. Weapons of mass destruction are created out of thin air, and a Bush administration official says that “Reality is what we decide it to be.”

Most ancient and medieval philosophers believed in a natural order that human beings were required to respect. A violation of the set order of nature would lead either to societal chaos and the destruction of the proper natural order. That began to change in the modern era, with Rene Descartes (1596-1650) moving the direction of philosophy away from nature to the self. The idea that things had real natures was cast off by William of Occam’s nominalism in the fourteenth century, so it was easy to move from the emphasis on self to the notion that categories in the mind account for the general structure of the world we experience. This was Immanuel Kant’s (1724-1804) position. But Kant believed these categories were the same for all rational beings, so we all experience the same world. Once this assumption was abandoned, then reality was thought to be what man willed it to be. In this view, there is no natural order that exist prior to man; it is man who makes reality what he wants it to be.

I offer a long-term empirical test of the idea that we can manipulate reality to be what we wish it to be. America and Western Europe are trying to mold reality in a way that supports an overly-individualist, self-centered, and materialistic lifestyle. If a pregnancy gets in the way, kill the fetus–after all, life begins when we say it begins. If old people get in the way, kill them–after all, life is meaningful when we say it is meaningful. If politicians want to profit from war, they should go ahead–they will invent reality to justify starting a war. If the family gets in the way of our desires, there is divorce, and for those who prefer lovers of the same gender, they can adopt, too. Reality is what me make it.

My proposal for an experiment is this: Let society go the direction of trying to create reality in the image of its desires. If my belief that the actions resulting from that view violate the natural order is correct, society will inevitably descend to chaos and ruin. Either social order will disappear into crime and chaos, or a strongman will take power to restore order through dictatorial force. If I turn out to be wrong, I am willing to stand corrected. Deal?