Liberals Are Optimists and Conservatives Are Pessimists

In the clash of competing ideas and notions about what is good, beautiful, and true, liberals and conservatives tend to take different approaches concerning the ability of man to make the world a better place.  Typically, liberals tend to have a far more optimistic view as to what they can accomplish, while conservatives tend to have more of a glass-half-empty attitude concerning public policy.

To understand this incongruence in values, we have to explore the roots of liberalism and conservatism, specifically the tête-à-tête between Rousseau, the original liberal, and Edmund Burke, the first conservative.

The fundamental premise of liberalism is the natural goodness of man, corrupted by society.  Rousseau believed that human beings were born benevolent, and evil in the world emanates from society.  As Rousseau wrote to Beaumont, archbishop of Paris (1762): "The fundamental principle of all morality ... is that man is a being who is naturally good ... that there is no original perversity in the human heart."1  The most salient piece of this quote is found at the end: "there is no original perversity in the human heart."  This is Rousseau's explicit invalidation of original sin.

Original sin is the Augustinian doctrine from the book of Genesis, where God punished Adam and Eve by expelling them from Utopia.  God punished man by mandating that we must labor for our sustenance from this point forward; future generations also inherit a permanent imperfection to our nature from this sin.  By invalidating this doctrine, Rousseau made utopia a possibility on Earth, and it enabled him to transfer man's flaws from the breast of the individual to society.  Man is no longer corrupt and imperfect, but instead is perfectible.

Arthur Melzer, a scholar of Rousseau, understood Rousseau's belief in the natural goodness of man, corrupted by society, to mean that "evil derives from society rather than from their sinful natures and that it may be cured or ameliorated through human ... action."2  Because evil comes from without and not from within, "then perhaps it could be overcome by reordering society.  In principle, Rousseau opens up radical new hopes for politics, utopian, messianic ... hopes that it can transform the human condition, bring secular salvation, make all men healthy and happy."3  Reordering society, tinkering with our laws, customs, and traditions, is Rousseau's way of bringing about utopia.

With original sin present in the mind of man, it is understood that man's nature is fallen and flawed.  Without it, Rousseau theorized that "he is capable of changing human nature ... of transforming each individual."4  Rousseau believed that "the appropriate manipulation of environmental factors could lead to human perfectibility"5 and that "if the individual — the basic building block of society — could be perfected, so too could the entire social order."6

Rousseau influenced William Godwin, Condorcet, the Abbé Sieyès, and James Mackintosh, his fellow social theorists.  They built upon Rousseau's foundations and raised them to new dimensions.  As the Abbé Sieyès offered, "religion ... was the first enemy of man."1  He opined that "the perfectibility of man is arrested, his efforts diverted; rather than increasing his knowledge and his pleasures on earth, these are transported and led astray in the heavens."2

William Godwin, a man Thomas Sowell3 referred to as the first social justice warrior, believed we are "capable of unlimited improvement."4  He was adamant that "principles of justice proceed on the equality of mankind."5  Godwin felt that the "excellencies and defects of the human character not derived from causes beyond the reach and the ingenuity to modify and correct."6  They believed that "[p]olitics is a science"7 and that we can apply "rules, uniform in their nature ... to the whole of the whole human race."8  Nothing is out of reach, nor beyond man's ability to fix or cure.

Edmund Burke knew that relying on the natural goodness of man is a mistake.  As Burke stated, "[t]here is no safety for honest men, but by believing all possible evil of evil men, and by acting with promptitude, decision, and steadiness on that belief."8

Burke further believed in the natural imperfections of man. He believed that the imperfections and tragic nature of the human condition are sewn into the fabric of human nature; perfectibility is simply unattainable.  This is what Burke meant when he pontificated that "man thinks much too highly, and therefore he thinks weakly and delusively, of any contrivance of human wisdom, who believes that it can make any sort of perfection."9  Burke knew that "[t]here is by the essential fundamental constitution of things, a radical infirmity in human contrivance."10

For Burke, the imperfection of man came from one specific source: the Judeo-Christian tradition of original sin.  The quote below illustrates Burke's recognition of original sin:

It is the common doom of man that he must eat his bread by the sweat of his brow, that is, by the sweat of his body, or the sweat of his mind. ... Every attempt to fly from it, and to refuse the very terms of our existence, becomes much more truly a curse."11

Adam Smith, a contemporary of Burke's, agreed with his notion of the imperfectible nature of man and the difficulty in arranging society and people into perfection.  Smith questioned the men who "imagine ... [they] can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chessboard."12

Human beings are emotional, and not rational, something modern neuroscience has corroborated.13  This is why "the great chessboard of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might choose to impress upon it."14  This is a refutation of the claims of men like Godwin and Condorcet, who believed that human beings are capable of receiving and responding to mathematical formulas to dictate their behaviors and outcomes.

Burke knew that the government had little ability to create any positive good, and at best, all it can really do is prevent harm:

To provide for us in our necessities is not in the power of Government. It would be a vain presumption in statesmen to think they can do it. The people maintain them, and not they the people. It is in the power of Government to prevent much evil; it can do very little positive good in this, or perhaps in any thing else.15

To conclude, liberals are significantly more optimistic about what they can accomplish due to their invalidation of original sin.  They believe that evil and flaws are not a part of man's constitution, but are introduced from without.  They believe in the efficacy of formulaic social-scientific equations applied to human beings.

 The conservatives believe in original sin.  They believe that man's nature is flawed; that human beings are unpredictable, so formulas do not work; and that utopia is reserved for the afterlife.

The invalidation of original sin is the least discussed aspect of liberal ideology, yet it is the most profound component to liberalism.  This subtle and nuanced tenet of liberal ideology is extremely important to know and understand, especially when discussing liberal and conservative clashes.


1. Rousseau, J. (1762). Letter to Beaumont.

2. Melzer, A. (1990). The natural goodness of man. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago.

3. Ibid

4. Rousseau, J. (1762). The social contract.

5. Winston, M. (2005). From perfectibility to perversion: Meliorism in eighteenth-century France. New York, NY: Peter Lang Publishing.

6. Ibid.

7. Burke, E. (1770). Thoughts on the cause of the present discontent.

8. Burke, E. (1791). Letter to a member of the national assembly.

9. A bill for shortening the duration of Parliaments.

10. Stanlis, P. (1986). Edmund Burke and the natural law. Shreveport, LI.

11. Burke, E. (17967). Letters on a regicide peace. Indianapolis, IN: The Liberty Fund.

12. Smith, A. (1759). The essential Adam Smith. In Ed. Robert Heilbroner. New York, NY: Norton and company

13. Haidt, J. (2013). The righteous mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion. New York, NY: Penguin Random House.

14. Smith, A. (1759). The essential Adam Smith. In Ed. Robert Heilbroner. New York, NY: Norton and company

15. Burke, E. (1795). Thoughts and details on scarcity.

In the clash of competing ideas and notions about what is good, beautiful, and true, liberals and conservatives tend to take different approaches concerning the ability of man to make the world a better place.  Typically, liberals tend to have a far more optimistic view as to what they can accomplish, while conservatives tend to have more of a glass-half-empty attitude concerning public policy.

To understand this incongruence in values, we have to explore the roots of liberalism and conservatism, specifically the tête-à-tête between Rousseau, the original liberal, and Edmund Burke, the first conservative.

The fundamental premise of liberalism is the natural goodness of man, corrupted by society.  Rousseau believed that human beings were born benevolent, and evil in the world emanates from society.  As Rousseau wrote to Beaumont, archbishop of Paris (1762): "The fundamental principle of all morality ... is that man is a being who is naturally good ... that there is no original perversity in the human heart."1  The most salient piece of this quote is found at the end: "there is no original perversity in the human heart."  This is Rousseau's explicit invalidation of original sin.

Original sin is the Augustinian doctrine from the book of Genesis, where God punished Adam and Eve by expelling them from Utopia.  God punished man by mandating that we must labor for our sustenance from this point forward; future generations also inherit a permanent imperfection to our nature from this sin.  By invalidating this doctrine, Rousseau made utopia a possibility on Earth, and it enabled him to transfer man's flaws from the breast of the individual to society.  Man is no longer corrupt and imperfect, but instead is perfectible.

Arthur Melzer, a scholar of Rousseau, understood Rousseau's belief in the natural goodness of man, corrupted by society, to mean that "evil derives from society rather than from their sinful natures and that it may be cured or ameliorated through human ... action."2  Because evil comes from without and not from within, "then perhaps it could be overcome by reordering society.  In principle, Rousseau opens up radical new hopes for politics, utopian, messianic ... hopes that it can transform the human condition, bring secular salvation, make all men healthy and happy."3  Reordering society, tinkering with our laws, customs, and traditions, is Rousseau's way of bringing about utopia.

With original sin present in the mind of man, it is understood that man's nature is fallen and flawed.  Without it, Rousseau theorized that "he is capable of changing human nature ... of transforming each individual."4  Rousseau believed that "the appropriate manipulation of environmental factors could lead to human perfectibility"5 and that "if the individual — the basic building block of society — could be perfected, so too could the entire social order."6

Rousseau influenced William Godwin, Condorcet, the Abbé Sieyès, and James Mackintosh, his fellow social theorists.  They built upon Rousseau's foundations and raised them to new dimensions.  As the Abbé Sieyès offered, "religion ... was the first enemy of man."1  He opined that "the perfectibility of man is arrested, his efforts diverted; rather than increasing his knowledge and his pleasures on earth, these are transported and led astray in the heavens."2

William Godwin, a man Thomas Sowell3 referred to as the first social justice warrior, believed we are "capable of unlimited improvement."4  He was adamant that "principles of justice proceed on the equality of mankind."5  Godwin felt that the "excellencies and defects of the human character not derived from causes beyond the reach and the ingenuity to modify and correct."6  They believed that "[p]olitics is a science"7 and that we can apply "rules, uniform in their nature ... to the whole of the whole human race."8  Nothing is out of reach, nor beyond man's ability to fix or cure.

Edmund Burke knew that relying on the natural goodness of man is a mistake.  As Burke stated, "[t]here is no safety for honest men, but by believing all possible evil of evil men, and by acting with promptitude, decision, and steadiness on that belief."8

Burke further believed in the natural imperfections of man. He believed that the imperfections and tragic nature of the human condition are sewn into the fabric of human nature; perfectibility is simply unattainable.  This is what Burke meant when he pontificated that "man thinks much too highly, and therefore he thinks weakly and delusively, of any contrivance of human wisdom, who believes that it can make any sort of perfection."9  Burke knew that "[t]here is by the essential fundamental constitution of things, a radical infirmity in human contrivance."10

For Burke, the imperfection of man came from one specific source: the Judeo-Christian tradition of original sin.  The quote below illustrates Burke's recognition of original sin:

It is the common doom of man that he must eat his bread by the sweat of his brow, that is, by the sweat of his body, or the sweat of his mind. ... Every attempt to fly from it, and to refuse the very terms of our existence, becomes much more truly a curse."11

Adam Smith, a contemporary of Burke's, agreed with his notion of the imperfectible nature of man and the difficulty in arranging society and people into perfection.  Smith questioned the men who "imagine ... [they] can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chessboard."12

Human beings are emotional, and not rational, something modern neuroscience has corroborated.13  This is why "the great chessboard of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might choose to impress upon it."14  This is a refutation of the claims of men like Godwin and Condorcet, who believed that human beings are capable of receiving and responding to mathematical formulas to dictate their behaviors and outcomes.

Burke knew that the government had little ability to create any positive good, and at best, all it can really do is prevent harm:

To provide for us in our necessities is not in the power of Government. It would be a vain presumption in statesmen to think they can do it. The people maintain them, and not they the people. It is in the power of Government to prevent much evil; it can do very little positive good in this, or perhaps in any thing else.15

To conclude, liberals are significantly more optimistic about what they can accomplish due to their invalidation of original sin.  They believe that evil and flaws are not a part of man's constitution, but are introduced from without.  They believe in the efficacy of formulaic social-scientific equations applied to human beings.

 The conservatives believe in original sin.  They believe that man's nature is flawed; that human beings are unpredictable, so formulas do not work; and that utopia is reserved for the afterlife.

The invalidation of original sin is the least discussed aspect of liberal ideology, yet it is the most profound component to liberalism.  This subtle and nuanced tenet of liberal ideology is extremely important to know and understand, especially when discussing liberal and conservative clashes.


1. Rousseau, J. (1762). Letter to Beaumont.

2. Melzer, A. (1990). The natural goodness of man. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago.

3. Ibid

4. Rousseau, J. (1762). The social contract.

5. Winston, M. (2005). From perfectibility to perversion: Meliorism in eighteenth-century France. New York, NY: Peter Lang Publishing.

6. Ibid.

7. Burke, E. (1770). Thoughts on the cause of the present discontent.

8. Burke, E. (1791). Letter to a member of the national assembly.

9. A bill for shortening the duration of Parliaments.

10. Stanlis, P. (1986). Edmund Burke and the natural law. Shreveport, LI.

11. Burke, E. (17967). Letters on a regicide peace. Indianapolis, IN: The Liberty Fund.

12. Smith, A. (1759). The essential Adam Smith. In Ed. Robert Heilbroner. New York, NY: Norton and company

13. Haidt, J. (2013). The righteous mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion. New York, NY: Penguin Random House.

14. Smith, A. (1759). The essential Adam Smith. In Ed. Robert Heilbroner. New York, NY: Norton and company

15. Burke, E. (1795). Thoughts and details on scarcity.