Liberalism doesn’t require good people

I’m going to say something that’s going to blow your mind.

People are terrible.

Specifically, people are racist, closed-minded, irrational, petty, superstitious, and risk-averse.

Scott Alexander recently wrote, “You can’t liberalism with people who refuse reason and are motivated by hatred.” Au contraire, mon frère.

Those are in fact the only people you can liberalism with. Because those are the only people there are.

Alexander writes:

Liberalism is a technology for preventing civil war. It was forged in the fires of Hell – the horrors of the endless seventeenth century religious wars. For a hundred years, Europe tore itself apart in some of the most brutal ways imaginable – until finally, from the burning wreckage, we drew forth this amazing piece of alien machinery. A machine that, when tuned just right, let people live together peacefully without doing the “kill people for being Protestant” thing. Popular historical strategies for dealing with differences have included: brutally enforced conformity, brutally efficient genocide, and making sure to keep the alien machine tuned really really carefully.

One should, at some point, ask ourselves why humanity needs liberalism in order to reduce the rate at which we murder each other.

Humans want to flourish, right? And not murdering each other is clearly and has always clearly been a more effective method for human flourishing than murdering each other, right? So then why do we need alien machinery to make ourselves stop murdering each other?

Because we are racist, closed-minded, irrational, petty, superstitious, and risk-averse by default.

There is lots and lots and lots of empirical research that shows that human beings are measurably and predictably racist, closed-minded, irrational, petty, superstitious, and risk-averse. That is to say, when researchers give humans choices we generally use racism, closed-mindedness, irrationality, pettiness, superstition, and/or risk-aversion whenever and wherever we can in order to help guide our decisions.

And, unsurprisingly for liberals, the people Alexander describes as “well-educated people proud of our commitment to logic and reason” using these heuristics generally leads us to make choices that don’t promote flourishing. Such as murdering each other over petty differences to protect shitty parcels of land to make Gods that don’t exist like us better.

Liberalism is not a thing you do with other liberals. Liberalism is not a quality. Liberalism is a heuristic that anyone can learn and everyone should know and use. It is the best heuristic we’ve found to promote human flourishing.

We need it precisely because our other heuristics suck so much ass.

Liberalism is the realization that racism, et al is the enemy, not racists. Because we’re all racists. When we realize that everyone is racist, closed-minded, irrational, petty, superstitious, and risk-averse by default, we lose some powerful reasons to hate each other.

Illiberalism is so potent and powerful not because some people are beyond hope, but because it’s so deeply ingrained in our customs, beliefs, history, and probably our biology too. That doesn’t mean it’s hopeless, but it does mean that we’ve got a long road ahead of us.

Liberalism wasn’t forged in the fires of Hell. It was forged right here on Earth, which we make a hell through our own illiberal heuristics. We are all sitting in a pile of shit, throwing shit at each other, and have to be carefully, artfully, consistently convinced to consider maybe climbing out, showering off, and getting along.

That’s the irony of liberalism. People sip tea and watch the people still in the shit pool and discuss the unimaginable brokenness and depravity of “those people,” never realizing or acknowledging their sheer incredible luck. They can’t imagine that they’re the same as “those people” except they have a better heuristic. They don’t understand why anyone would need to be talked out of the shit pool.

But they do, man. We all do. We all are in some level of the shit pool because we all suffer from bad heuristics to some degree or another. Another thing liberalism is is simply the realization that not all heuristics are created equal.

It’s an incredibly turning point when you realize your heuristics should serve you, not the other way around.

It’s kind of a complicated, sophisticated thing. That’s why it’s got to be sold. And the first step to selling someone to someone is identifying with your prospect.

Alexander ends with a call to stop calling everyone and everything racist and start “trying to trace [social problems] back to root causes that make sense and humanize the people involved. Working to find the reasons liberalism is possible, rather than the reasons it isn’t.”

Exactly. The natural tendency toward illiberal heuristics is the root cause of illiberalism, not illiberal people. And this is also the reason liberalism is possible. Because everyone can, and should, challenge their heuristics.


  1. Steersman

    Guess you weren’t much impressed by my comment on July 2nd?

    Didn’t think you were much given to echo chambers.

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