Sunday, March 01, 2009

Liberty and human nature

I trust Mr Pullman will forgive me for misreading his address to the Convention of Modern Liberty. Truth is, I didn't read it carefully at all - I can't be doing with mysticism at this stage in my life, still less the English Christian mysticism of William Blake. Rather it was only really the final line of his piece that caught my attention:
"We are a better people than our government believes we are; we are a better nation."
I'll use it - I dare say out of context - to make what I consider to be an absolutely essential point about political liberty and the human condition. It is something that I believe should be expressed in the strongest terms: it should be taught in the kindergarten of political theory that the demand for limited government has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with a belief in the essential goodness of human nature. No - all human beings can be, and often are, selfish, destructive, venal, vicious, stupid and desperately wicked. Rather, it is based on an insistence that the political class are made from the same human material.

This version of liberty expresses equality at its very foundation - and grasping this is a matter of no small importance. The failure to understand it leads to one of two extremes: the 'libertarian' imagines a political class occupied by people whose essential nature is more disfigured than the rest of us, whereas those who advocate deference of an uncritical nature to those in authority impute angelic virtues to our rulers. But the insistence on limited government has nothing to do with either of these. Men are not angels, so they need government - says Jack Straw. But those in power are no more angelic than the rest of us. For they carry the human stain in equal measure - no more and no less. So how can anyone argue that they are in any less need of restraint?

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