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.

6 thoughts on “Liberalism Doesn’t Scale (and it shouldn’t!)

  • Pingback: Liberalism: Biblical but not scalable? – Targuman

  • Fantastic points, Steve. Btw, I find Traditional Church much the same – it can go either way. Which leads me to ask:

    Does this argument “scale”? Or do these same principles play out differently in local politics? That is, should we let the Republicans run the Federal, and Democrats run the Civic? But what about State? And what about PTAs?

    Again, I found myself in complete agreement with your train of thought. But how does this work itself out on the small scale?

  • Bill, thanks for your thoughtful reply. When it comes to the specific calling of liberalism–the notion of caring for your neighbor–I think we should be more liberal at the local level, but even then only in ways that seek to connect the members of the community.

    I am glad you asked this question. Many in my family, myself included, have argued that we should be conservative at the Federal (and in many cases State) level, and increasingly liberal as we get closer to the local level.

    I would resist calling for Republicans, or Democrats, at any particular level, because I think this view is something different (I almost wrote “transcends” those names, but I won’t be so bold.) What I am suggesting is that the same people should be both supportive of the liberal/Christian ideal of caring for your neighbor at the local level–where you can see and feel the impact you are having, while simultaneously adopting a more conservative approach at the aggregate.

    But wait–there’s more! I have more to say on the flip side of this coin. Liberalism doesn’t scale up, but the Conservative ideal may not scale down very well either.

  • Parents can’t let their toddlers fend for themselves – for instance?

  • Steve,

    Great post. It actually describes my political views. I’m concerned with those who want no government on any level whatsoever. But I’m also concerned with massive federal government. With a large local government, if I don’t like it, I can always move away or work to get it changed. Not possible with a huge federal bureaucracy.
    I remember helping to vote out of office a Republican mayor, who did nothing for a Southern city I lived in for 17 years. But I also voted a Democrat out of the governor’s office, and replaced him with a Republican who was more moderate in his stance.

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