Liberalism and the Will, Part I

Introduction here.

Let us imagine two Americans, both 50 years old, both college educated, in both with equally high IQs. Both of them are politically involved, and both like to read policy arguments and op-eds with regularity.

Let's call them Al and Bill. Despite their similarities, there are also important differences between the two men:
  • Al grew up in rural Texas, where his father wildcatted for oil, while his mother was a housewife. He attended a small Baptist college in his home state. After successfully starting and selling a propane delivery service, Al has bought his own cattle ranch in the Texas Panhandle.

  • Bill grew up on Manhattan's West side. His father was an editor for The New Yorker, and his mother worked in corporate donations at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He attended a small liberal arts college in Vermont. After college, he lived in an intentional democratic community in the Vermont country side for a couple of years, before returning to New York, and taking up work as a literary agent.
Now consider this question: What are Al's and Bill's positions on gun control?

We all know that we can answer that question with about 95% or greater accuracy: Al is against it, and Bill is for it. But Al and Bill are equally intelligent. They both have the same level of education. Both have jobs that require a lot of thought if they are to be successful at them. They each have heard the same arguments for and against gun control, and each have read the same studies.

Neither arguments nor evidence have any impact on their views on this topic. That is because these views were not formed in order to determine the truth about what the best gun laws might be, given our circumstances. They were formed in order to bolster the image that each man wishes others to have of him. By adopting the stances they have, they signaled to their social peers that they are good people, with the "right" sort of views. To the extent they engage the other side's arguments or evidence at all, it is done in a purely defensive manner.  Their will has ordered their reason not to discover the truth, but to defeat the other side's arguments.

This is essentially the situation today on every divisive issue in America, the world's oldest liberal democracy. If there has ever been a proposition about politics that has been empirically falsified, it surely is the liberal idea that rational debate is an effective way to the adoption of the "best" ideas for public policy. The idea initially was put forward with no empirical evidence to back it, and only the flimsiest of arguments in its favor. All the evidence since is negative: the project has been a failure.

And yet modern liberalism still puts this idea forward as though it were an obvious, almost uncontestable, truth. Why?


  1. Gene, this reminds me of Voegelin's insight that I learned from reading 'Eric Voegelin: Philosopher of History' by Eugene Webb; he states that Voegelin, upon starting what would be the project of his career, realized that ideas are not the most fundamental things to thought, but are rather existential stances that carry with them an entire worldview. I thought about this when you said 'they were formed in order to bolster the image that each man wishes others to have of him.'


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