Liberalism Doesn’t Scale (and it shouldn’t!)

A colleague of mine is a great friend. He would do anything for me, or for anyone for that matter. He honestly (and rightly) believes that we should do unto our neighbors as we would want them to do for us. My friend is a great man. I truly admire him and the heart he has for those around him.

He is also a self-professed liberal. This is not surprising. He believes that we need to look out for our neighbors, and his view of neighbor is expansive. So understandably (I hop) I found myself pondering if I am missing something. Is there something “great” about liberalism as we know it today? And if it is “great” does that mean conservatism somehow misses the boat?

After much reflection, I realized that we have two problems facing us. First, the liberal ideal of caring for those around you is not only a good one, it’s Biblical. We are called on by Christ to love our neighbors. And Christ didn’t draw any neighborhood boundaries, either. On the other hand, we are faced with an ever-enlarging government that, despite all the best intentions and heartfelt goodwill, never seems to deliver on the “big promises.”

My conclusion? Liberalism doesn’t scale–and it wasn’t ever intended to. For us to love our neighbor we must be in contact with our neighbors. We can care best for those we touch. I suspect this was designed into our nature.

There have been many articles and books written, speeches given, and studies done, identifying that we respond more positively, and give more freely, to concerns closer to home. So we are hard-wired to care for those around us. This “local giving” may not be motivated from a pure heart, but at least we know it happens. Superfreakonomics gives us a perspective on this altruism: ‘Most giving is, as economists call it, impure altruism or warm-glow altruism. You give not only because you want to help but because it makes you look good, or feel good, or perhaps feel less bad.”]

So we, for whatever reasons or motivations, generally want to help our neighbors. Surely that extends to those we cannot see, correct? Well, the authors of the book SuperFreakonomics would perhaps argue no. Not only do they essentially argue that liberalism doesn’t scale, they go a step further and discusses research that indicates that, when given an opportunity, people will not only fail to behave benevolently towards their neighbor, they will in fact, cheat them. But what is most interesting here, is that, in the research they discussed, the cheating occurred most often between people who were not neighbors. “In the data, List found an interesting split: the out-of-town dealers cheated more often than the locals.”

So here is where I believe liberalism, or altruism, fails. When we ask the government to step in and perform altruistic acts, we ask the government to do a few things on our behalf:
1. We want an non-person to demonstrate humanity. We ask that the government “care.”
2. We want the government to make the “right” choices about what and whom to care for. Of course, we find that often that means bringing the “bacon” (or “Pork”) back to our own districts, where we “see the need.”
3. We want the government to do all this, without actually requiring that we pay for it, and simultaneously wanting the government to make sure someone else pays for it (“raise the taxes on the wealthy.”)

So over time, we find that government is called on less to be altruistic on a grand scale, and becomes for nearly all a way to force others to give money to causes and people they otherwise might not support, while simultaneously bringing resources to bear on my own local problems. Government then takes on the roll of proxy for the same local concerns we used to care for ourselves!

This is, of course, simply a blog. I make no pretense of conducting large scale research myself on this topic. I am simply tying together my readings, and my observations of the world around me. It seems to me that most people want to help those close to them, and most when presented with true and compelling need or tragedy, will give. But when we rely on our government to function on our behalf we become disconnected. We no longer have those “feel good” moments that cause us to practice “warm glow altruism.” Government

And then, over time, we stop caring.