The Good News about Us

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I was teaching a seminar, a week or so ago, when I got an interesting response to a simple observation.

The text was the Divine Comedy, and the topic was sin. I wanted to emphasize the distinction between “original sin” and what theologians call “total depravity.” There’s plenty of evidence for original sin, I noted; just look at children. They quite naturally lie, steal, and commit aggression. But the idea that there’s nothing good about people — that’s something different. “The empirical evidence indicates that people are mainly good,” I said. “Every day, almost everything they do is right.”

The students looked confused. “Our world couldn’t exist,” I continued, “if the vast majority of people’s decisions weren’t right. That’s how I was able to get here on the freeway this morning. Everybody was operating a lethal instrument, and one that’s not easy to handle, either; but everybody made the kind of moral and practical decisions that allowed thousands of us to get to our destinations.”

The empirical evidence indicates that people are mainly good. Every day, almost everything they do is right.

Suddenly the looks of doubt and confusion turned to surprise and joy. No one had thought of this obvious truth — a truth so obvious that, frankly, I usually forget it myself. As you know, I am especially prone to forget it while writing about the shocking state of our political affairs.

Yet the overwhelmingly correct decisions that people make in their daily lives are not just a vindication of human nature; they are a vindication of libertarian ideas about the importance of letting people make their own decisions. It’s true, there’s a difference between moral and practical choices. And it’s true, education is needed. Teenagers need to learn how to drive. They also need to learn that it’s morally wrong to express their irritations by aiming a huge hunk of steel going 70 miles an hour at the targets of their displeasure. But once they have the necessary education — which is not too hard to acquire, if authority figures don’t mess it up — they do pretty well in their own bailiwick. Better than the authority figures ordinarily do in theirs. So leave them alone! Laissez-faire!

No one had thought of this obvious truth — a truth so obvious that, frankly, I usually forget it myself.

Speaking of education, this isn’t a lesson that’s particularly difficult to convey to our friends and neighbors. It’s a joyful lesson. And here’s the corollary: The genius of limited government is that it reduces the number of bailiwicks in which authority figures can intervene, and make a mess of things. I don’t know how to spend your money, and neither does President Trump. And I don’t know how to run your race relations, healthcare, retirement schemes, diet, college choice, weapons provision, electricity consumption, or — to return to the original example — means of transportation. Neither does Nancy Pelosi, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, or any of the rest of them. So they should butt out.

Again, not hard to understand. And not even new. Alexander Pope said it 300 years ago:

Each might his sev’ral province well command,
Would all but stoop to what they understand.

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