On Conservatism and the Constrained Man

Pundits don’t just argue to advance special interests and partisan political schemes. They are fundamentally opposed in ideology.

Why is it that the talking heads on MSNBC and FOX News, repeatedly find themselves, time and again, on varying issues that are so seemingly unrelated, so passionately and so bitterly opposed to one another? Many times I am asked by peers and colleagues how it is that I can’t find much at all to agree on with liberals, including President Obama. Still others derisively decry the influence of party politics, partisanship, and obstructionism and plead with politicians and pundits on both sides of the aisle to come together and “get something done.” Yet, no compromise is ever made and if there is, neither side is happy. Why is that?

What if I told you that this isn’t due to partisanship at all? What if I told you that it is not stubbornness and vitriol that cause these disagreements, but that these differing views are almost always a logical conclusion stemming from two diametrically opposed visions of the nature of man and rights, and ultimately the nature of the universe? Perhaps parties are the natural end of of the dichotomy between two opposing world views that have existed throughout human history, unchanging and in perpetuity? Crazy, I know. In order to understand, apart from the party structure, what true conservative or constrained thought is, one must also understand modern liberalism or the unconstrained view of man.


True liberals believe there is no God. Man and order are an accident and simply a product of Evolution and chance. Therefore, without a divine logos, soul, or nature imbued by his Creator, man is born a blank slate (tabula rasa) and is programmable from birth based upon his or her environment, institutions, technology and peers. Morality is relative, because there is no God, or overarching moral code governing mankind. Being a blank slate and without an inherent nature, man possesses a natural goodness which is only corrupted by those aforementioned factors, as the institutions of man are evil.

A true liberal believes that man has infinite or unlimited ability for growth, learning, and development and can be engineered. Society can constantly be improved upon when those influencing factors are changed. History is progressive, as man’s nature is constantly changing with his environment, institutions and technology, and thus his actions and their results also change. Morality also changes with mankind, and morality is social and is derived from a consensus of men, not from a universal truth.

However, not all men can grasp what is best for society and mankind, and only more able “supermen,” as Nietzsche put it, or the elites of society, understand what needs to be done to purge our social institutions and free man to be his naturally good self. The true liberal has a tendency to revere the educated, deify elites within society and to place power and a great hope in a select individual or precious few who “truly understand” the needs of mankind.

As each generation is more enlightened and evolved than the preceding, new laws, traditions and mores must supplant the old. In this way, society can become more and more perfect, and youth is always preferable to experience. Wisdom, it is believed, comes more from the younger generation, which is smarter and has the more enlightened and progressive inspiration. The elites of this new generation have the foresight to reshape society. This view offers “solutions,” rather than trade offs, though since morality is relative, the ends often justify the means.

The unconstrained paradigm can often be described best as viewing man as “Fluff the kitten.” Jean Jacques-Rousseau, like many French thinkers of the unconstrained variety, said that “man is born free, but is everywhere in chains.” If liberals, it is reasoned, can remove Fluff from his cage (institutions, traditions, mores), then he is harmless and Utopia is possible. That is, only if the traditions, institutions and mores that constrain man can be erased and rebuilt by the vision of the elites.

Thanks to Bill Zogby for Fluff the Kitten


True conservatives, or Classical Liberals, believe that order can only emerge from ordered intelligence, or a God who imbues men with a soul, or logos. This view of man holds that man, as the result of his creation, is equipped with an innate nature and inalienable rights. Man is, by his fallen nature, programmed with unchanging, inherent self interest, prone to do what is in his best interest when left unchecked. This conflicts with an objective morality which is written in nature by God.

This self-centered nature will cause men to do evil when self-interest is not restrained by traditions, mores and institutions. Without these constraints on man’s pursuit of his direct self interest, a “state of nature”, as Thomas Hobbes posited, would ensue. Conversely, this tendency toward evil is governed by Natural Law, or an unchanging law of man that permeates all societies and all eras.

This view holds that the traditions, institutions and laws of a society which restrain man are built slowly and inter-generationally, and are based upon objective truths which may or may not have been grasped at one time and may today not even be apparent, as all men are limited in their resources and intellect. Like languages, the complex order of society evolves over time. In this view, even the wisest of men are not much less foolish than even their slowest peers. History is seen as cyclic, or rhythmical because men in one century are still governed by the same nature, and are not really any more refined, informed or intelligent than men in another century.

Conservatives’ belief in collective wisdom, or traditions evolved over time, is premised upon notions that the men who hold them may have forgotten, or never have even been aware of! When changing these fundamental constructs of society, men run the risk of incurring unintended consequences that they, in their limited ability, cannot see coming. As men are all limited and there is very little variance in their ability, all men are able to grasp objective truths, and do not need to be guided by elites. Thus, intellectuals are viewed skeptically and communal knowledge preferred.  There is no perfect system because men are imperfect, and so trade offs are preferred to fundamental transformation of our societal constructs.  Change is accepted, but slowly, over time, and through millions of decisions by millions of people every day or when the obvious severity of the defect merits change.

Thanks to Bill Zogby for Killer the Tiger

The constrained paradigm can be described as viewing man as “Killer the Tiger.” Man is confined in what he is permitted to do in pursuit of his self interest. To let him out would be horrific. To erase his restraints is to flirt with disaster.


Chief Justice Earl WarrenBut is it right? Is it good?

John Kenneth Galbraith – [We cannot make today’s decisions based upon] a timid reverence for the decisions of our ancestors

Jean Jacques RousseauMan is born free and is everywhere in chains.

Robert Owen – Courts of law, and all the paraphernalia and folly of law cannot be found in a rational state of society.

Finding that no religion is based on facts and cannot be true, I began to reflect what must be the condition of mankind trained from infancy to believe in error.

Man is the creature of circumstances.

George Bernard Shaw – In a country justly and providently managed there could be neither excuse for [charity] on the pauper’s part nor occasion for it on the patron’s.

Thomas Paine – The world is my country, all mankind are my brethren, and to do good is my religion.

Thomas Jefferson Rather than [the French Revolution] should fail, I would have seen half the earth desolated.

William Godwin Reason is the proper instrument, and the sufficient instrument for regulating the actions of mankind

Children are like a sheet of white paper…a sort of raw material put into our hands.

Maximilien Robespierre – Any institution which does not suppose the people good, and the magistrate corruptible, is evil.

Robert Dahl – Delegation to experts has become an indispensable aid to rational calculation in modern life

French RevolutionLiberty, equality, fraternity.

Plato’s philosopher-king


Adam Smith[Man’s goal is not to produce the ideal] but the best that people can bear.

The peace and order of society is of more importance than even the relief of the miserable.

King Solomon — What has been will be again, and what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun (Ecc 1:9)

Thomas Hobbes [Without political institutions, life would be] solitary, poore, nasty, brutish and short.

Robert C. WinthropAll societies must be governed in some way or other. The less they may have stringent state government, the more they must have individual self-government. The less they rely on public law or physical force, the more they must rely on private moral restraint. Men, in a word, must necessarily be controlled either by a power within them, or by a power without them; either by the Word of God, or by the strong arm of man.

Milton FriedmanIs there some society you know of that doesn’t run on greed?

F.A. Hayek Indispensable rules of the free society require from us much that is unpleasant.

Tradition is not something constant but the product of a process of selection guided not by reason but by success.

Edmund Burke[There are] beneficial effects of human faults

Wisdom without reflection.

Alexander HamiltonWe love our families, more than our neighbors: We love our neighbors more than our countrymen in general.

[Social policy should] gently divert the channel,and direct [human selfishness], if possible, to the public good.

It is the lot of all human institutions, even those of the most perfect kind, to have defects as well as excellencies- ill as well as good propensities. These result from the imperfections of the Institutor, Man.

U.S. Constitution & Declaration of Independence We hold these truths to be self evident that all men are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.

Property rights/Gun rights/free speech rights/Equality of opportunity, not of results.

Donald RumsfieldThere are known knowns and known unknowns, but there are also unknown unknowns.

Oliver Wendell Holmes The life of the law has not been logic: it has been experience.

G.K Chesterton – When a man ceases to believe in God, he does not believe in nothing, he believes in anything.

James Madison – If men were angels, no government would be necessary.

T.S. Eliot – Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

For more on constrained and unconstrained social theory, read Thomas Sowell’s A Conflict of Visions.  Try applying this theory the next time you hear two people arguing about politics, and see if they are arguing past one another.

David Teesdale, is fluff the kitten.  He can even use the litter box.  E-mail him at david.evans.teesdale@gmail.com or comment here.


2 Responses to On Conservatism and the Constrained Man

  1. […] this premature blame-gaming is due to the emotionally driven rationale that imbues most of the unconstrained political philosophy, and not calculated political dirt-baggery which drives this knee jerk, wrong […]

  2. Bill Owen says:

    A good summary of A Conflict of Visions and reminds me of how difficult it is to get polar opposites to hear each other.

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