David Mamet writes revealingly of his political awakening:
As a child of the ’60s, I accepted as an article of faith that government is corrupt, that business is exploitative, and that people are generally good at heart.
These cherished precepts had, over the years, become ingrained as increasingly impracticable prejudices. Why do I say impracticable? Because although I still held these beliefs, I no longer applied them in my life….
This is, to me, the synthesis of this worldview with which I now found myself disenchanted: that everything is always wrong.
But in my life, a brief review revealed, everything was not always wrong, and neither was nor is always wrong in the community in which I live, or in my country. Further, it was not always wrong in previous communities in which I lived, and among the various and mobile classes of which I was at various times a part.
And, I wondered, how could I have spent decades thinking that I thought everything was always wrong at the same time that I thought I thought that people were basically good at heart? Which was it? I began to question what I actually thought and found that I do not think that people are basically good at heart; indeed, that view of human nature has both prompted and informed my writing for the last 40 years. I think that people, in circumstances of stress, can behave like swine, and that this, indeed, is not only a fit subject, but the only subject, of drama.
This is a theme that Dennis Prager wrote about on the last day of 2002:
Very early on, I realized that perhaps the major reason for political and other disagreements I had with callers was that they believed people are basically good, and I did not. I believe that we are born with tendencies toward both good and evil. Yes, babies are born innocent, but not good.
Why is this issue so important?
First, if you believe people are born good, you will attribute evil to forces outside the individual. That is why, for example, our secular humanistic culture so often attributes evil to poverty….
Second, if you believe people are born good, you will not stress character development when you raise children….
Third, if you believe that people are basically good, God and religion are morally unnecessary, even harmful. Why would basically good people need a God or religion to provide moral standards?…
Fourth, if you believe people are basically good, you, of course, believe that you are good – and therefore those who disagree with you must be bad, not merely wrong. You also believe that the more power that you and those you agree with have, the better the society will be.
Mamet’s sense that liberals’ faith in human nature contradicts their sense that everything is wrong and requires intervention reminds me of half of a joke I heard many years ago. What’s the difference between liberals and conservatives? Liberals think that people are basically good, and that you need to stop them from doing what they want. Conservatives think that people are basically bad, and that you should let them do what they want. That makes both positions sound incoherent. But they’re not on a par. The tension in liberalism is real, and philosophers such as Rousseau and Marx have to appeal to implausible theses about the plasticity of human nature to try to resolve it. The tension in conservatism, in contrast, is resolved by structures that limit power—including government power—and channel conflict into competition and, ultimately, excellence.
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