“Original Sin Liberalism”

I appreciated this piece from E. J. Dionne on what he calls “Original Sin Liberalism,” which is a pretty accurate label for my own political outlook. Dionne is responding to conservatives who accuse liberals of believing that people are essentially good, and are only made bad by social structures or conditions. Dionne notes that liberals like Reinhold Niebuhr have long been aware of humanity’s propensity for wickedness; this is why they think we need political and legal checks on this universal tendency:

Law exists precisely to “tame the savageness of man,” a phrase that Robert Kennedy drew from classical sources. The human capacity for sin and evil requires us to consider that denying someone the right to own an AR-15 may enhance the right to life of far more people than those restrained by such a restriction. Background checks are based on the view that if we can keep weapons out of the hands of those who have a record of perpetrating violence (as well as those with psychiatric problems), we can reduce the number of evil acts that people are, indeed, quite capable of performing.

An Original Sin Liberal might go on to challenge conservatives who claim to be very conscious of human fallibility and our capacity for selfishness. Why do they so often oppose laws reducing the likelihood that individuals and companies will despoil the environment or take advantage of their employees?

A noble but guarded attitude toward human nature was prominent in James Madison’s thinking, leading him to see the politics of a democratic republic as entailing an ongoing search for balance.

On the one hand, we need to pass laws because we know that men and women are not angels. But this also means that we should be wary of placing too much power in government, since it is run by flawed human beings who can be guilty of overreach. Many of our arguments involve not irreconcilable values but different assessments of where this balance should tilt at a given time on a given issue.

Conservatives who want to pare back the regulatory function of government are arguably far more guilty of dewy-eyed optimism about human nature than liberals. They think (or at least purport to think) that an unchecked market will somehow result in greater well-being for everyone. They embrace the highly counter-intuitive (and empirically dubious) notion that “an armed society is a polite society.” And they’re more likely to vest unchecked trust in law enforcement and the military. It’s true that liberals and their further-left cousins have sometimes been blind to the dangers of power concentrated in the hands of government to oversee and manage the economy, so no one party or ideology is without fault here.

The Christian doctrine of original sin should make us suspicious of all forms of concentrated and unchecked power, whether it’s the economic power of corporations or the deadly power of military-grade weapons and government surveillance. As Dionne suggests, this doesn’t provide a neat and tidy ideology, since we need to maintain a balance between government, the market, civil society, and private initiative. But government has an indispensable role to play as a check on the human tendency toward wickedness. Laws can’t change hearts, but they can limit the damage that sinful human beings inflict on one another.


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