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The Conservative Critique of Social Engineering

Daniel J. Mahoney

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The West began the twentieth century enamored of scientific progress--a.k.a. "man's mastery over nature"--and the comprehensive improvement, even the radical transformation, of society. Today, modern men and women have been chastened. We know that such progress comes with a price--and that it does not guarantee moral improvement.

The devastating consequences of man's hubris in our time, from the emergence of destructive technologies to the totalitarian goal of engineering society, rightly give us pause. We are led to ask, is there an unavoidable link between the hopes that modern man placed in the conquest of non-human nature on the one hand, and the totalitarian efforts to conquer or transform human nature on the other? What relationship holds between modern science and what Friedrich Hayek in The Counter-revolution of Science called "scientism"--the effort to apply the methods of mathematical physics and geometry to human nature? How scientific, in fact, are the aspirations for a science of society that could make "social engineering" possible?

Most conservatives now agree we should strive to improve man's lot through technological innovation and economic growth. Yet they remain skeptical about thrusting centralized planning on irreducibly complex societies. Conservatives don't reject reason outright but rather what the English political philosopher Michael Oakeshott called "rationalism in politics"--a style of politics that ignores the wisdom latent in tradition. Political rationalists don't foresee the unintended consequences of uprooting long-established institutions and social practices that have well-served human needs. This sort of rationalism forgets, too, that societies can best reform their evils by pursuing possibilities for improvement that already inhere in their established ways of life.

Read the entire article on the American Enterprise Institute website (new window will open).

Posted: 30-Aug-05



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