In a recent NYTimes column summarizing conservative policy proposals, David Brooks comments that “conservatives should not be naive about sin.” He doesn’t explain what he means, but in the context it seems fairly clear. Reform conservatives emphasize deregulation and decentralization. According to Brooks they should beware of new unregulated power networks–“Wall Street, Washington, big agriculture, big energy, big universities — … dominated by interlocking elites who create self-serving arrangements for themselves.”
Brooks isn’t talking about sin as an offense against God–the classic way for religious people to think of it. He is talking about sin as a sociological phenomenon. It’s the pernicious tendency among human beings to make arrangements that favor their own interests at the expense of others, and to do it in a (perhaps unconsciously) devious way that hides its selfishness under a cloud of pragmatic, good-of-society rhetoric. Sin as a sociopolitical reality is endlessly creative.
Where there is power and money–and where isn’t there?–sin will abound.
Conservatives have aptly criticized liberals for being naive about sin–for example, by assuming that people are poor strictly because of discrimination or lack of opportunity, and not their own folly or sloth. They are right that government programs become a safe harbor for sinners, because the programs tend to be insulated from the suspicious minds that capitalists bring to their own endeavors. (Capitalists have always suspected that their workers are lazy and dishonest–perhaps projecting their own character–and therefore set up controls and incentives to keep them working for the company. But in government, it’s not in any particular individual’s interest to stop the cheaters. And by the way, this applies just as much to doctors who work Medicare and farmers who haul in ag subsidies, as it does to people on welfare.)
Sin, however, finds destructive opportunities in all social arrangements. And woe be to the policy proponent who believes that some preferred social arrangement will magically eliminate the problem of sin.
The doctrine of sin, understood sociopolitically, will keep us from undue optimism. When someone proposes that the whole problem is X, and that the world would become rosy if we simply did Y, those with a robust understanding of sin will smile and sigh. It doesn’t matter whether X is government, or Wall Street, or gun-toting individualism, or teacher tenure, or broken families. It doesn’t matter whether Y is deregulation, or a carbon tax, or eliminating the income tax, or a higher minimum wage. Whatever the analysis and whatever the proposal, our human ability to game the system for our own benefit, and at the expense of others, is almost boundless.
Sin is not, of course, the only thing. There are also many reasons for hope. But sin must be taken into account, not only for the other guy’s ideas, but for your own.