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Building for a Better Liberty
Macroeconomist Philip Pilkington writes that in a postliberal age, we need to look at social engineering with a better view of human freedom.
Social engineering is not a terribly popular term these days. On the right, it is seen as something that should be associated with socialism and perhaps even communism. On the left, it is rarely discussed, likely because the old early-and-mid century progressivism in which the term was popular has given way to a more libertarian movement concerned with individual freedoms rather than improving society. The modern left’s resistance to the term makes more sense than the modern right’s. The left is simply not interested in social issues that are not ultimately individual issues. For the modern left, if anissue does not increase the capacity for an individual to “be themselves” then it is not worth trying to support this issue and so why should they think about how to build – or engineer – a better society.
The libertarian right today agrees with the left, of course. In reality, there is very little light between the two movements and ultimately, they clash over means, not ends. The libertarian left seeks to use state power to maximise individual libertarian freedom, and the libertarian right seeks to use market forces. Ultimately, both have their role in maintaining our current liberal regime. But the libertarian right is no longer a serious intellectual force. It still plays a very important structural role in the liberal regime – and that is why it still has access to enormous amounts of resources – but it is not producing serious intellectuals or interesting ideas and has not for many years. In recent years, desperate to find a point of relevance, it has started to deteriorate into crude eugenics and race hucksterism.
The postliberal right, on the other hand, should be interested in social engineering. If it seeks to build a better society then it will need plans to do so. Drawing up plans requires engineering. There is nothing inherently socialist about this. Indeed, the origins of the term ‘social engineering’ are not traceable to the Bolsheviks or even European social democrats, but rather to Protestants in late-19th and early-20thcentury America. It is true that the ideology of liberal Protestantism that most of these men and women subscribed to would be alien to contemporary postliberals, but it is far less alien than the libertarian missives from many contemporary libertarian Protestants.
Earp’s Social Gospel
The key work in this respect was the American sociologist Edwin L. Earp’s 1911 volume The Social Engineer. Earp emerged from the ‘Social Gospel’ movement which was, in many ways, American Protestantism’s answer to the papal encyclicals on social teaching emerging from the Catholic Church around the same time. The Social Gospel movement eventually mutated into what we would now refer to as old liberalism in America. The New Deal, for example, was heavily inspired by the Social Gospel movement and it need barely be mentioned the influence it had on the early Civil Rights movement, which was centred around the Baptist Church.
It would be a grave mistake to think that just because the Social Gospel movement eventually mutated into mid-century American liberalism, that it was always a purely liberal movement masking as a religious movement. The Social Gospel movement, at least in the early days, did see the problems in society as arising due to a fundamental conflict between good and evil. Social engineering, for someone like Earp, was primarily an attempt to reorder society to exercise what he saw as the forces of evil and which he believed were becoming more organised and developed in advanced industrial society. In this 1911 book he writes:
The powers of evil today are socially organized, and therefore the salvation of society involves social methods and machinery in order to overthrow the organized powers of evil… today it is possible to “sin by syndicate”, and therefore our methods of salvation must be socialized. [We must create] a regenerate environment so that the spiritual life of the individual may have the best chance to function and prove its quality by fruitage.
Nor is Earp shy about what the remedy is. Yes, he discusses various practical social reforms to tackle various practical problems, but ultimately, he wants to use the tools of the state to purify society in light of the teachings of the gospels. He urges his readers to pursue “a serious search for a social antitoxin that will destroy the toxic effects of social sinning in the body social; and earnest attempt to apply preventative measures of the gospel to the problem of sin as well as the redemptive agencies of the Word of God”.
Here we see that the source from which the term ‘social engineering’ arose was indeed the American Protestant answer to the encyclicals on Catholic Social Teaching. In content the two doctrines were more similar than they were different. Both were distrustful of socialism. Both emphasised something resembling the principle of subsidiarity. Both were highly focused on class conflict and on the moves by the socialist and communist left to take advantage of these tensions. There were differences too, but in many of these the Catholic Church the more liberal line such as with the question of the prohibition of alcohol. But overall there were far more similarities than there were differences.
Social Engineering in Contemporary Discourse
Yet the Social Gospel teachings were disorganized, lacking both fundamental philosophical basis and theological depth. This reflected the fact that various Protestant sects adhered to it. Methodists were as influenced by the movement as were Episcopalians andBaptists. Obviously, these groups had vastly different ideas about theology and even philosophy, to the extent that they thought about the latter. So, there was never any attempt to ground the Social Gospel movement in a firmer theological and philosophical base. Likely for this reason, there is no existing philosophy of social engineering. While it is a widely used metaphor, most of us do not really stop to think what it means.
In its initial meaning – that is, as Earp deployed it – the metaphor was direct. If you wanted to build a bridge, you would consult an engineer. The engineer would consider how best to do this given the conditions in which the bridge was to be built. Likewise, for Earp and his followers, if you wanted to build a better society you would consult a social engineer. Rather than simply standing on a street corner preaching the gospel, Earp argued, groups of social engineers could consider social problems at a macro-level and work on plans for how to address them. They could then use the churches to rally people around these problems and put pressure on the state to address them.
Today, however, social engineering seems to have a slightly different connotation. Although never clearly defined, it seems to mean something like “using technology, whether physical or social, to influence behaviour”. The likely reason why this meaning has shifted slightly is obvious: governance, whether undertaken by the state or by other corporate actors, now has much more sophisticated techniques on hand to draw on than it did in the early-20th century. Indeed, if you think about it carefully it becomes clear that social engineering is always a matter of degree. When the early social engineers set up so-called ‘settlement houses’ to help the poor improve their lives, they were ultimately focused on changing and improving peoples’ behaviour. This is perfectly analogous in a purely formal sense to the state using mass communications technology to alter peoples’ behaviour today.
When it is discussed in public, the question that social engineering appears to immediately raise is whether it is right or wrong. This touches on questions of freedom and agency. It also touches on questions of state and even Church authority and whether influencing people is ultimately an analogue to coercing people. Yet this discussion is rarely undertaken in any nuanced or sophisticated way. It seems likely that this is because of the origins of the term itself and the fact that it arose from a somewhat disorganised movement that was populated by different Protestant factions eager not to air their internal theological and philosophical disagreements over such questions of freedom and order.
Human Freedom as a Metaphysical Problem
The question of free will is one of the most difficult in philosophy, even, we are told, in secular philosophy. If you take even an undergraduate class in philosophy, you will no doubt be introduced to the so-called ‘mind-body problem’ and encouraged to ask questions about how the notion of free will holds up in the face of biological determinism. These questions are only ‘hard’ if the student is impressed when they are shown patchy brain scan images and videos of mice with electrical contraptions on their heads. If the student reads even a popular philosopher like Kant and dismisses the mice and the scans as science fiction and not philosophy, the free will versus determinism problem collapses soon after.
Free will and determinism become a truly difficult problem for Christian philosophers, however, even if they are not bamboozled by scientistic magic tricks. Indeed, it would not be too much of an exaggeration to say that a Christian philosopher should recognise the question of free will as probably the most difficult philosophical problem in existence. Nor would it be too much of an exaggeration to say that the difficulty of this problem gave rise to intellectual component of the Protestant Reformation, whether in Luther’s debate with Erasmus on the matter or in Calvin’s far more profound teachings on Predestination and Unconditional Election.
What are the bones of the problem? It arises out of a misleadingly simple contradiction. If we assume that God is omniscient and omnipotent, then it should be obvious that our lives are predetermined – or predestined – before the fact of our birth. But this appears to mean that we do not make choices and therefore have no free will. If we have no free will then it is implied that God created Man and forced him to Sin. This results in the contradiction that God would actively will and participate in Evil. If we, however, assume that we have free will, the problem of Evil disappears. But then it is not clear how God could be omnipotent because we could act independently in a manner that would change the future in a way that God could not anticipate.
A most ingenious solution to this problem comes to us from the Catholic Counterreformation. Typically referred to as ‘Molinism’ it is named after the 16thcentury Spanish Jesuit theologian Luis de Molina. Molina argued that there was no contradiction between free will and God’s omniscience because God created each person knowing how they would make decisions throughout their lives. That is, God knows that if you are put in each situation what you will do through the freedom of your own will. Having all this knowledge in advance, God could cycle through all possible universes that he could create and choose the one that would produce his overall plan through the free choices of the individuals he wanted to bring into being.
Today, thanks to the rise of the mathematics of probability in the 17th and 18th centuries, we can actually improve on Molina’s intuition. We now know that a system can converge on a predetermined outcome based on statistical probability rather than pure determination. That is, not every element in a system must behave in a purely predetermined or predestined way to produce a certain outcome. A few of the elements can stray from the overall ‘plan’ so long as on average most of the elements tend probabilistically to follow the ‘plan’. This implies that God can even give Man a significant amount of leeway to “take the wrong path” so long as, on average, most people follow probabilistically the path that God expects them to take. When God cycled through all possible universes, he may have selected this one on a purely stochastic basis.
Human Freedom as an Existential Problem
Much less often discussed, however, is human freedom from a Molinistic perspective as an existential problem. Molina describes extremely well what it means from a metaphysical, global perspective. The great Jesuit allows us to understand how God can by omniscient and allow human beings to have free will. But this does not really speak to how this should operate in our own lives and without an account of this it becomes quite difficult to properly grasp the problem of free will.
Perhaps the best way to think about Molinistic free will from an existential perspective is to call to mind an event in our own lives. It might help to address something that is emotionally charged, and therefore allow us to focus our attention strongly on the decisions at work in this event. So, the best thought experiment is to imagine the decision or decisions that you made in your own life that you most regret in retrospect. Most people have given an awful lot of thought to the decisions that they most regret. They might run over them in their minds, trying to figure out what motivated them and whether they could have done anything different if they had the opportunity to undertake them again.
Yet what we need to do is change the frame somewhat. If we subscribe to a Molinistic account of predestination, we will realise that these decisions that we regret are permitted by God, and are thus belong to His providence. Indeed, when stated like this is sounds like a truism to any Christian. Even a non-Molinist Christian, a Banezian postliberal Catholic, or even one utterly ignorant of philosophy would likely say the same thing. This raises an enormously interesting question that clarifies greatly the nature of Molinistic predestination at an existential level: if God knows what we are going to do when confronted with any given situation, is it completely meaningless to look back on a decision that we regret and consider whether we could have made a choice that would have produced a substantially different outcome?
In truth, it does appear to be mostly meaningless. Decisions that we bitterly regret are big decisions, not small ones. Few people look back twenty years after the fact and wish they had drunk coffee instead of tea one morning in August. Those who obsess over minute decisions as having a determinative impact are simply superstitious. Carrying the rabbit’s paw to that big job opportunity you lost out on would not have gotten you the job. It is big decisions that we typically regret, and those big decisions are truly determined by our character at a given moment in time faced with a particular situation. Yes, our character may evolve, and we may learn from our mistakes, but our character at any given moment in time is relatively fixed. Faced with a large decision and given a relative fixity of our character at any given moment of time, it is as Molina suggests, basically predestined what decision we will make – and this although we are perfectly free in that moment to make that decision.
At the extreme, but it logically follows, we can say that beyond contemplating previous bad decisions to grow and improve ourselves, regretting decisions in our lives is simply irrational. This should rid us of the equally irrational desire to be in full control of our lives and to see external interventions– whether from God or from Man – as an imposition. The reality is that, although we have free will, we are predictable creatures. Most people who know us well know how we would respond in most circumstances. God knows almost precisely. We are predictable. We do have free will. But the fact that we are predictable means that there are inherent constraints built into our agency.
God’s Plan in the City of Man
But what does all this have to do with social engineering?Quite a lot, actually. We started this discussion with a question: is social engineering right or wrong? Or put differently, is it morally acceptable for Christians to engage in social engineering? After considering the actual nature of human free will, we can now say something about social engineering.
To start we should be clear on one point: social engineering is not primarily coercive. Some aspects of it may be coercive. For example, we may judge that drugs have become far too prevalent in our society and impose harsher drug laws to wipe these out. Or we may conclude that homelessness is largely a problem of mentally ill people wandering the streets and reopen the psychiatric asylums to treat them. But most interventions, especially today given all we have learned from psychology and economics, will not be coercive but rather incentive-based. To get people to behave in a certain way, we set up the incentives in such a way that they engage in the behaviour that we want.
For example, contemporary debates around family policy have tended in the direction that we should heavily subsidise having children. Our assumption here is that if we put incentives in place more people will have children. Stripped back what we are making is a probabilistic argument: if we increase the incentives to have children then on average people will have more children. Or, phrased differently, increasing incentives to have children raises the probability that you or I will have children. The probabilistic statement is tied to the implicit assumption that we can broadly predict behaviour. In the case of family policy, we say that, although each individual person has very different motivations, they also share motivations. One motivation which almost everyone shares is money and the resources it can purchase. We therefore think that by putting money on the table to encourage family formation more people will have children because by and large people are predictable.
The analogy to Molinist predestination should be crystal clear at this stage. Engaging in social engineering does not override the free will of people in any meaningful sense. To the extent that it does and is coercive it should be clear that this is simply a component of living in a law-governed society. And even these do not override human free will: if you willingly break the law, you have implicitly consented to go to prison. But most of the interventions that we would have to undertake to engineer a better society do not put any obstacle in the way of free will. They are analogous to how God predestines the outcome of the universe He has created. He knows what is in our hearts and broadly how we will respond to any given situation. He then sets the rules for the game and allows us to play.
If this is God’s plan for the universe it cannot be evil. Engaging in social engineering is merely Man intuiting God’s plan for the universe and trying to replicate it in a much humbler form in the City of Man. Doing so is not just not evil, it is actively good. And this is precisely what we mean by governing in line with the common good. Christians have long been aware of the analogy between God’s laws and the laws that men make. The laws we create are grounded in and justified by God’s laws. Yet while laws are explicitly coercive, social engineering is not. Since the process of social engineering is analogous to Christian predestination, why are Christians today so averse to social engineering?
It is the liberals, with their bizarre ideas about human agency and freedom, who are acting against God’s plan imagining as they do that He allows us to simply run amok. Is it any surprise that their program leads to anarchy and the proliferation of vice, disorder, and misery? Both in theory and in practice it is liberalism that cuts against the order of the universe. When liberals refuse to allow prudent, largely non-coercive interventions in our society they are simply promoting anarchy. And it is anarchy’s fruits that we see around us in our societies today.
We need to build for a better liberty.