Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Am I Manichaean?

Good question.

For that matter, is any movement that faces an opposing movement "Manichaean"? Are Democrats Manichaean when they recognize that there are Republicans? Are Red Sox fans Manichaean because there are Yankees fans?

Not necessarily.

If Red Sox fans believed their team failed to win the Pennant because of a sinister, underhanded, secretive plot by the Yankees to contaminate the water in the BoSox dugout, that might be a weird conspiracy theory, but still not Manichaean.

Manichaeism usually invokes a vaguely-defined, semi-hidden, preternaturally-powerful enemy that selfishly works to defeat the good things you are trying to do because this enemy wants bad things to happen. Failures and bad outcomes are blamed on ill-defined machinations of the opponent, usually involving the opponent being smarter and more organized than is humanly possible.

I believe that Progressive movements are mistaken (badly mistaken) about how best to improve the lot of humans. They misunderstand how humans interact. But Progressives are not out to harm humanity for selfish purposes.

Progressive movements evidently value abstractions like "humanity" or "society" or "social justice" more than individual humans - during the 20th century various Progressive movements (Bolshevik, Nazi, Maoist) slaughtered about 100 million of their own people, but they all did it for the good of humanity. Chairman Mao's policies included the outright killing of 50-70 million Chinese, but he did it to create a workers' paradise in China, not for his own selfish purposes and not to make China a worse place to live. Hitler killed Jews because he believed human society would be better without them. How can you blame a guy with such good intentions?

(Yes, Hitler was a Progressive. Not some extreme Conservative. Nazism was closer to Bolshevism than to Barry Goldwater.)

So, no, I don't consider my philosophy Manichaean. I don't see the struggle as between the forces of good and the forces of evil selfishness. I see the struggle as between romantic wishful thinking (including the belief that human reason can achieve anything) and a humble acceptance of human limits, the complexity of life, and the adaptive inventiveness of ordinary people.

Thomas Sowell describes it as a conflict of visions: The Unconstrained Vision of Progressives and the Constrained Vision of classic Liberals. Both visions are held by people of good will.

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