Conservatives and liberals are pessimistic about human nature when designing the foundations of a country or constitution. However, conservatives would be more likely to favor institutional checks on human nature because we recognize its evils. But notice that this response accepts human nature, rather than trying to fundamentally alter it. The liberal response to human nature is to also recognize its evil or greedy proclivities, but it then seeks to force humanity into a “better” mold. This is the pernicious and noxious foundation of socialism/communism, which is an extreme incarnation of American liberal views, but still runs in its vein. It is the underlying and often unspoken thesis behind American, even more moderate, liberal policy.
This is a major topic of Steven Pinker’s latest book The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (Video of his book lecture). Liberals tend to see the mind more like a blank slate, it is something they can mold into a higher form with good policies. What’s ironic is that Pinker compares that sentiment with the religious right, but not with what I would consider true conservatism or classical liberalism (he has confirmed this via email). Pinker and conservatives like me agree that human nature is mostly immutable and that institutions should be erected that check it, rather than try to change it. This liberal view of human nature is beyond pessimism toward human nature, it is disdain for it. I feel that the most humanitarian way to develop societies, for both rich and poor, is to allow the natural human greed for wealth to expand…Meanwhile liberals see this greed as something to be expunged, or at the least discouraged.
How does the difference in understanding of human nature manifest itself in policy? Liberal policy recommends ever higher taxes. Why? Their implicit belief is that the innate human desire to earn more wealth for yourself is morally wrong. Their recommended solution is to forcibly take the wealth from him (taxation) and redistribute it in a way that more closely comports with their view of a moral human society, or rather, the way society would look if human nature were good. Rather than accepting the human greed instinct, they dissuade it and reject it, thereby creating disincentives to work, thereby creating unemployment and stagnant growth (i.e.
This distinction most obviously exists when it regards how free markets should be. The problem is that when you try to get humans to stop acting like humans they inevitably will, but it won’t ever produce the results desired by the central planners. Humans will change their behavior, but not in a way that is less greedy. No, it’s the opposite. They will continue to act in their self-interest, except the institutions of society will not be setup to direct that self-interest into production and wealth for society, but rather into unmotivated human capital.
It makes sense that policies should be designed with a firm grasp of the immutable realities of human nature. As Pinker and Chomsky (in linguistics) have argued, we are not blank slates. We have mental proclivities for language, good and evil, greed, and a plethora of other things.
The reason that democracy and capitalism work better than any other system is because they were the first forms of government and economics which, instead of trying to change human nature, accepted and checked human nature. So long as we continue to swoon to the “Siren Songs of the Progressives” and to the charming allure of egalitarian diction, society will continue to be regressive and poorer than it could otherwise be.