December 13, 2010

"Human nature can be as easily reshaped as hot wax"

I liked this piece, Human Nature and Capitalism By Arthur C. Brooks and Peter Wehner. Not because it gives new ideas, but because it puts old ideas very clearly...

At the core of every social, political, and economic system is a picture of human nature (to paraphrase 20th-century columnist Walter Lippmann). The suppositions we begin with—the ways in which that picture is developed—determine the lives we lead, the institutions we build, and the civilizations we create. They are the foundation stone.

During the 18th century—a period that saw the advent of modern capitalism—there were several different currents of thought about the nature of the human person. Three models were particularly significant.

One model was that humans, while flawed, are perfectible. A second was that we are flawed, and fatally so; we need to accept and build our society around this unpleasant reality. A third view was that although human beings are flawed, we are capable of virtuous acts and self-government—that under the right circumstances, human nature can work to the advantage of the whole.

The first school included those who (representing the French Enlightenment) believed in man's perfectibility and the pre-eminence of scientific rationalism. Their plans were grandiose, utopian, and revolutionary, aiming at "the universal regeneration of mankind" and the creation of a "New Man."

Such notions, espoused by Jean-Jacques Rousseau and other Enlightenment philosophes, heavily influenced a later generation of socialist thinkers. These theorists—Robert Owen, Charles Fourier, and Henri de Saint-Simon among them—believed that human nature can be as easily reshaped as hot wax. They considered human nature plastic and malleable, to the point that no fixed human nature existed to speak of; architects of a social system could, therefore, mold it into anything they imagined.

These theorists dreamed of a communal society, liberated from private property and free of human inequality. They articulated a theory of human nature and socioeconomic organization that eventually influenced capitalism's most famous and bitter critic: the German philosopher, economist, and revolutionary Karl Marx....

Read the whole piece for the other two views. You can probably guess where I align myself.

I recall that John Adams in his cranky post-Presidential years got into a long newspaper battle with Mercy Otis Warren over the meaning of the American Revolution. He was driven to fury by her assumption that America had somehow become a new society, freed from the corruptions of Europe. He was battling against the above view of human nature

On the same subject you might like this long-ago post of mine, on John Adams as blogger...
...The world-peace-through-fuzzy-leftist-thinking that drives today's warbloggers into a frenzy started back in John Adams' time. His was the age of the Philosophes; utopians who wanted to sweep away corrupt old institutions, thereby achieving a perfect society. What they got was the French Revolution, and Napoleon. (And Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot...) The thinking-style of the philosphes is still popular today, despite having killed hundreds of millions of people and failing utterly to achieve anything that could be labeled perfection.

Adams lived for two decades after his presidency. He spent much of his time in his library, reading and furiously arguing in the form of marginal comments in his books (I have a whole book of those scribbles: John Adams & the Prophets of Progress, by Zoltan Haraszti). A favorite target was Mary Wollstonecraft's History of the French Revolution...
      Posted by John Weidner at December 13, 2010 7:47 AM
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