Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Lessons Unlearned

"Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
George Santayana, The Life of Reason
I think many of the political problems we seem to be having these days stems from our differing perspectives on human history and experience:
In the main, whether by dint of personality or education, conservatives tend to show more respect for tradition and institutions.  This stems from a reading of History that shows (a) most innovation leads to failure or disaster; (b) there are few things new under the sun; (c) most "innovations" have already been tried...and were discarded for a good reason; (d) there are some human values that we simply have to accept a priori, since applying sterile logic to the human condition leads to a sterile and withering nihilism that is not conducive to human growth; (e) as our capacity for unintended consequences appears to know no limits, we need to be very careful when making changes; (f) a page of history being worth a volume of logic, experience will be a better guide for us than abstract logic; and, therefore, (g) small, incremental changes are likely to lead to better results than grand plans based on the hope that we can remake the world to our liking.
It seems to me that modern-day liberals (as opposed to Classical Liberals, who would likely be described as "conservatives" in today's political climate) tend to scoff at tradition, and set their sights on remaking the world into something better.  This, in turn, leads to (a) a rejection of History as a guide to the future; (b) the belief that Man is infinitely malleable; (c) the belief that one can devise solutions to problems through the use of logic, rather than practical experimentation; and, as a consequence (d) the conviction that the "masses" must be led to the future, since they are incapable of knowing what's best for them; and (e) the conclusion that ultimate wisdom is to be found in educated elites, rather than History, Experience, or Tradition.
Personally, I think we're far better off muddling through as best we can and tinkering at the margins to make things better, than we are trying to devise "grand plans" to solve all our problems in one fell swoop.  Evidence for this abounds, even if we limit our search to the last Century:
Exhibit A:  Soviet Russia
Exhibit B: The War on Poverty
Exhibit C: Modern Feminism, and the entire PC movement
Exhibit D: Obamacare
It is all well and good to be a dreamer and idealist, and to devise grand notions for making the world a better place.  But as tradition notes, the road to Hell is paved with good intentions, and it's usually unwise to fix something that isn't broken.  The conceit that humans can foresee all the consequences of what they're doing leads us to farce and tragedy; and I suspect that our descendants will be looking back on our Age of Folly and shaking their heads...wondering how their ancestors could have been so stupid.
Of course, that may not prevent them from making their own stupid mistakes.  But it seems to me that one benefit of looking at the past is to see and learn from the mistakes of others --- including the conceit that "Our Era" has the answers to problems that have plagued Mankind since the beginning, and that human folly is limited to the past.
I hope one day, humanity can master this lesson; it's one that our generation seems never to have learned.

JEFFREY CAMINSKY, a retired public prosecutor from Michigan, writes on a wide range of topics. His books include the Guardians of Peace-tm science fiction adventure series, The Sonnets of William Shakespeare, and the acclaimed Referee’s Survival Guide, a book on soccer officiating. All are published by New Alexandria Press, and are available on Amazon, as well as directly from the publisher.

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