OPINION: by Bill MuehlenbergNews Weekly
The Left's flawed concept of society
, October 17, 2009
In September, in The Australian, a six-part series on the Left appeared. It is interesting to read these articles in light of what the Left was saying 20 years ago. The bottom line is, little has changed. These recent pieces are all united by the usual collection of clichés, platitudes and ethereal thinking.
There is very little which is concrete here, just the usual moralistic rhetoric and the usual buzz-words: equality, social justice, fairness, diversity, and so on.
What also binds these articles together is the usual leftist alliance on the state. For the most part, the state, not the individual or the family or the community, is generally viewed as the ultimate saviour.
While others will examine in greater detail these articles, here I wish to simply utilise broad-brush strokes. One way to proceed is simply to outline the ways in which Left and Right differ. Thomas Sowell has very nicely summarised the major differences between the two in his many works, especially in these three important volumes: A Conflict of Visions
(1987), The Vision of the Anointed
(1995), and The Quest for Cosmic Justice
Sowell argues that the Left and Right operate from fundamentally different premises.
The two main visions Sowell discusses are what he calls the constrained and the unconstrained visions. The constrained vision (the conservative worldview) acknowledges that there are limits. There are limits to human nature, limits to what governments can do, limits to what can be achieved in a society.
The unconstrained vision (the radical or leftist worldview) tends to downplay limits. Mankind is seen as more or less perfectible; social and political utopia is to a large extent achievable; and evil is not endemic or inherent in the human condition, and therefore is able to be mostly eliminated.
The conservative vision tends to reflect the Judeo-Christian understanding that mankind is fallen, is limited, is prone to sin and self, and cannot produce heaven on earth, at least without the help of God. The left-liberal vision, by contrast, tends to see the human condition as innocent, malleable and perfectible, and tends to think that utopia on earth is achievable under the right social conditions.
Edmund Burke may best exemplify the former vision, with the American Revolution one of its main fruits. Jean-Jacques Rousseau may best exemplify the latter vision, with the French Revolution a key expression of it. Sowell argues that on the whole, the conservative vision, being much more closely grounded in reality, will usually produce better outcomes for those intended to benefit by them, than those of the leftist vision.Of ultimate importance
What also should be pointed out is that in some respects the Left and Right do not differ so much on what they consider to be ultimately important. Both want to see such goods as justice, tranquillity, national well-being, and so on.
Both for example favour equality, but the Left tends to favour equality of outcomes, while the Right favours equality of opportunity. Are bureaucrats, ruling elites, social engineers and expanding state powers the answer? Or are individuals, mediating structures (church, family, community, etc) and free markets best placed to achieve desirable social outcomes? That is where the differences emerge.
Indeed, the Left does not have a monopoly on moral concerns. It is not just Julia Gillard who is "driven by indignation at injustice". Conservatives are also incensed at injustice. It's just that the Left so often seems to be highly selective in where its outrage is directed.
America, capitalism, globalism and the West in general tend to be its targets. At the same time, they seem deathly silent on the mega-injustices of such things as Soviet or Chinese Communism or Islamo-fascism.
Also of interest is the decidedly secular tone of this entire series of articles. Given that fact, it is interesting to recall the title used in the very first article: "A new light on the hill". Whether the author or subeditor realised it, the phrase was first used by the ancient Hebrew prophets.
The early Puritans and American founding fathers also utilised such terminology as they expressed their hopes of what sort of place that new land was to be. In both visions there was an overwhelming spiritual reality which lay behind the terminology.
What is remarkable about this series is the fact that there is not one religious or spiritual reference to be found anywhere. God is entirely left out of the picture.
To seek to bring heaven to earth without the author and source of such values and goods is an exercise in futility.
As C.S. Lewis warned in his book The Abolition of Man
(1943): "You can hardly open a periodical without coming across the statement that our civilization needs more 'drive', or dynamism, or self-sacrifice, or 'creativity'. In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful."
So while some of the aims and goals of the Left may be morally laudable, the question remains as to whether the worldview of the Left, and its proposed remedies and polices, will in fact usher in these desired outcomes. Fortunately we have history on our side here, and the verdict is not very favourable.Bill Muehlenberg is a commentator on contemporary issues, and lectures on ethics and philosophy. His website CultureWatch is at: www.billmuehlenberg.com