Are people inherently depraved?
I was tickled to see a naked example of conservatism pop up in the comments at Alas, a Blog in this comment by Robert:
I believe that all human beings have the same basic nature. We all start out greedy, selfish, naughty, and all the rest. We can partially overcome these things; indeed, we had better do so if we want to have decent lives with one another. However, the nature remains, and the temptation remains, and we all stand capable of committing great evil if conditions are right.
Classic conservatism in the raw, which I was taught is best articulated by Thomas Hobbes. It's my personal opinion that much of American conservatism actually can be traced back to our Puritan ancestors and their Calvinist obsession with depravity and original sin, which also explains the American conservative tendency to lump lust in with other, criminal depravities. But of course, as soon as I pointed out that there was a philosophical difference at stake here and that American liberals generally don't subscribe to the belief that humans are inherently depraved, the commenter backed off his statement.
Too bad, really, though I know why he did it. Rare is the American conservative who embraces the philosophical tenets of conservatism, especially those who know that the widely stated American principle of liberty relies on a classically liberal understanding of human nature. So American conservatism has to be really stealthy for political expediency.
Of course, there is one kind of American conservative who embraces the theory of human depravity without apology, and that's the religious right who still explicitly ground their belief system in that of our Puritan ancestors. But it's important to remember that the majority of people who identify as conservative reject simplistic religious views like this and consider themselves intelligent and educated on science and all that. Which puts them in a real bind, since they can't explicitly embrace a classical position or risk sounding un-American but they don't want to align themselves with the snake-in-a-tree crowd, either. The only other option for justifying a conservative position is to take a simplistically cynical stance. Which is, "People are inherently wicked and need to be controlled and anyone who disagrees with me is a romantic, starry-eyed, tree-hugger."
I agree that a romantic view of human nature is unrealistic, but it doesn't follow that a cynical view of human nature is the realistic one. Both viewpoints stem from being having a selective eye and only seeing evidence that bolsters your point of view. The cynical-conservative viewpoint is that hostility dominates human relations and competitive strategies are inevitable so even trying to implement cooperative strategies is doomed and you might as well embrace competitive strategies. But I would argue that cooperation is actually the dominant strategy in most people's lives, and we only notice competition and hostility more because it's the exception to the rule. Granted, it's a common exception but it's common in large part because our social structures encourage hostile human relations. Think of all the small ways you cooperate with people in the day. Now think of how rarely you clash with someone in comparison. See what I mean?
I think that people will generally conform to the expectations put on them. You see this with the manufactured Social Security crisis. I was listening to NPR and they were interviewing people about various options for fixing Social Security. When most of the people they interviewed were told that the fund could fixed by pushing the age that you started receiving benefits from 65 to 70, people were surprisingly open to cooperating by putting off the age they can expect benefits to make sure that there were benefits for everyone.
But if BushCo pushes their private accounts on people, there will be an avalanche effect as the expectations put on people change. A handful of competitive types will immediately pull their money out of the general fund, not so much because there's proof that they will make more but because there is always a handful of people that conduct their business by maximizing the hostility in their strategies. And that will shrink the size of the fund, causing more people to panic and pull out until everyone has to because if they don't, there will be no money left over to pay out their benefits. Again, people will conform to expectations, which is exactly what BushCo is counting on to kill Social Security.