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What Makes the Left Tick

Author and professor Jonathan Haidt, a popular psychologist and liberal democrat, has suggested a similar etiology in a recent lecture on TEDtalks.com. Haidt has challenged the notions and presuppositions of his own political class in positing a system of intuitive ethics — “the five foundations of morality” — which attempts to quantify various aspects of moral commitment. Deriving his conclusions from extensive research, Haidt finds that liberals identify with two of the five moral values intrinsic to the human mind, designated as “Harm/Care” and “Fairness/Reciprocity,” while conservatives focus on the remaining three, “Ingroup/Loyalty,” “Authority/Respect,” and “Purity/Sanctity.” (“Authority” here implies the recognition of the significance of tradition which prevents a society from going off the rails.) But what is most interesting is that the graph he presents in his video talk clearly reveals that conservatives also identify, only slightly less robustly, with the initial two values as well, suggesting a far more mature and holistic view of life’s complexities. An anonymous blogger posts a somewhat more readable version of Haidt’s chart:

Further, as the blogger has pointed out in his commentary, an exclusive or almost exclusive convergence on the first two principles are expressions of “moral adolescence,” that is, of largely untested assumptions dissociated from actual life experiences and a knowledge of history. Care and Fairness are centrally important values. The problem arises when they are not adjusted to real-world human conduct where such norms are not interculturally recognized and can be easily exploited by unscrupulous actors, and at the same time may displace the other basic ethical precepts which, as Haidt contends — with support from Steven Pinker in The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature — are inherent to human nature. It is as if, to quote from poet James Cummins, the liberal-left is stuck in “the border region between narcissism and an inner life.” In short, the political ideology of the liberal-left, in hock to slogans rather than insights and predicated on fantasies about how the world works, is a symptom of moral immaturity.

This is not to say that liberals (not counting the Tinseltown crèche) are wholly stunted human beings but that their “physical, intellectual and chronological maturity,” such as it is, belies and obscures a woefully inadequate and undeveloped moral substratum. It is precisely here that we note the dangers of arrested development, of being trapped in — to use Haidt’s term — the “moral matrix” of the adolescent world in which there are no shades of grey, in which the appeal to ridicule and blamestorming is irresistible and substitutes for rational debate, and in which the tendency to jejune self-righteousness and collective behavior is paramount.

Indeed, another sure sign of resident infantilism is the evident absence of humor and wit, replaced chiefly by coarse insult and vulgar taunting, so prevalent in leftist discourse. This deficiency is the case even among the arguably more sophisticated, left-leaning hosts of most TV late shows, where the humor is stale, forced, predictable, and often downright embarrassing. David Letterman and Stephen Colbert are excellent examples of patently unfunny left-liberals. It is not so much a reversion to childhood that we are remarking as, rather, never having managed to escape, morally and emotionally, the gravitational pull of “childish things.” One recalls the words of Saint Paul in I Corinthians 13:11. “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” This is precisely what the left has not succeeded in doing. What is even more bizarre, it considers itself a “cognitive elite” when it is in actuality an epistemic rabblement, a truant demographic of cortical delinquents and moral charlatans.

None of what I’ve said above should be taken to imply a callous disregard of the corrugations on life’s journey, of human plight and suffering. There are ways of helping the disadvantaged, of showing care and fairness, that do not founder in theory, platitudes, bureaucratic excess, and merely good intentions, for example: a stringently monitored policy of foreign aid in which Western largesse does not end up in the pockets of dictators, warlords, terrorists and kleptocrats; individual charity and looking out for one’s neighbor (one of the strengths of the American, though not of the European, character); volunteering with hands-on organizations dedicated to helping the poor, the sick, and the elderly; reducing taxes to stimulate job creation; and reasonable programs of social alleviation and job retraining that respect both the dignity of the person and the demands of a vital economy.

But the liberal-left is mainly enamored of abstractions and high-sounding proclamations, of taxing and redistributing other people’s money, of lowest- common-denominator equality to the detriment of individual liberty, of oracular temptations, and of administrative parasitism at the expense of entrepreneurial productivity and personal ambition. In this context, conservative republicanism represents a far more mature perspective on the world than the puerilities of the Democratic left. As Margaret Carlson, a Democrat and former correspondent for Time magazine, says, “If I break down on the side of the road, I hope a Republican stops — he’ll fix my flat and offer me a drink. A Democrat will get busy forming a Committee to Protect Women Who Own Vulnerable Cars.” Referring to Carlson, Matt Patterson, a senior editor at the Capital Research Center, justly comments, “Liberals rarely see individuals except in the abstract. ... To smooth out the differences [between individuals] … is to suffer from a tragic myopia that can lead only to destruction — of rights, of property. To see only groups is to necessarily dehumanize; to dehumanize in theory is to oppress in practice.”

Another way of viewing the dilemma which bedevils us, summarized as the conflict between left and right (to some extent, a perfunctory distinction, but it will do), is furnished by the economist Martin Whitman, author of Value Investing. Whitman adopts a mature view of socioeconomic activity, believing that a collaboration between “voluntary exchanges” (conservative) and “coercion” (liberal-left) is eminently feasible. In other words, restraint and freedom are not antitheses but mutual participants in the proper functioning of a society. “Coercion” ensures that the rules which enable social existence are observed, that corporative monopolies and competitive anarchy are “ruled out.” At the same time, individuals and corporations must be allowed sufficient latitude to pursue “voluntary exchanges” in order to grow and prosper if society is not to whither and decay. The trouble with the doctrines of socialism and Marxism is that, by intruding so profoundly into the vitals of individual, cultural, and economic life in all their ramifying manifestations, they stifle the creative spirit, reduce the individual to an integer in the social and political equation, and trend inescapably toward a generalized state of inertia, torpor, and slavish dependence on a dominant elite. The irony is that this transactional deformation is imposed under the rubric of humanitarian compassion and transcendent idealism.

The fuel that powers the left and liberal-left imagination is the dream of human perfectibility and the complete reconstruction of human society in defiance of the inevitable natural constraints that render such a project both nugatory and ruinous. The cost is exorbitant and the result is always, in the course of time, one or another form of social devastation. What makes the left tick is a hedonic time bomb, an explosive device located in the coltish longing for pleasurable havoc and subversion in order, presumably, to attain to a condition of unfettered, aggregate freedom. But certain truths must be acknowledged if we are to steer clear of social and intellectual pauperdom and evade the perils of totalitarian mutations. Human nature simply cannot be re-engineered. The “human stain” is with us to stay.

Of course, limited, remedial change is always possible, but it should be regarded and pursued as change for the better. Personal growth, equality of opportunity (though not necessarily of outcome), the “right” to gainful employment honorably carried out, a level playing field in market economies, humane social legislation that does not cripple or deprivilege those who have earned the claim to enjoy their property and dispose of it as they see fit, is slow, difficult, and piecemeal, as it must be if calamitous upheavals are to be avoided. The larval sensibility, however, is enamored of sudden and radical change, of rapidly supplanting a time-tested and resilient social architecture with the eclogues of spectral metamorphoses. Plainly, there is nothing wrong with change per se, but one can become drunk on the idea of disruptive transformations. Better the sober attitude which the Hellenistic philosopher Philo of Alexandria paradoxically called the nephalios methi, the “abstemious intoxication,” in which one’s childish or befuddled impulses are distilled, so to speak, by reason and humility.

At some point, one needs to grow up. And at some point, conservatives need to realize that, try as one might, one cannot debate with unruly children and half-demented teenagers. One sends them to bed without supper, or deprives them of their allowance, car keys, and nights out. They need to be “grounded.” Which is only another way of saying that the left must be sent packing before the brats take over the house, crash the car, and vandalize the budget, believing they are establishing the pastoral estate of collective empowerment, freedom from ancestral limitation, and exemption from the rule of necessity.

For the fact is that the revolutionary cadre of self-indulgent puritans, in all their impatience and inflexible righteousness, cannot do the work of Mother Nature or replicate the strategies — or accidents — of evolutionary genetics. And the human quest for salvation, whether personal or social, cannot be left to the reckoning of children.