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The Daily Tar Heel

Column: ‘Right’ thinking keeps us on track

Turn on the 6 o’clock news, and you’ll hear the stories from families whose homes were destroyed by a tornado in the Midwest. Change the channel and see emaciated victims of the latest famine in Africa. You don’t even have to leave North Carolina to see human suffering: one in four children under the age of five goes to bed hungry every night in our state.

What can we do? Liberals generally turn to the government to intervene for good, when and where it can, while conservatives tend to be more skeptical of government action. After all, it’s one thing to know the good, but quite another to know how to achieve it.

Edmund Burke is a great example of the conservative school of thought. When he wrote his “Reflections on the Revolution in France,” a letter to a friend of his in France, he acknowledged the many evils of the ancien régime, but he cautioned his friend against radical action.

Burke argued that societies are infinitely complex and that the nature of man is intricate and immutable; practical wisdom is necessary to effect changes which both identify what’s wrong and improve the situation. He feared that the inexperienced revolutionaries armed with abstract “rights of man” would end up destroying society.

Sadly, his fears proved true as the revolution mutated into the Reign of Terror, where the poor and downtrodden were killed by the same men who claimed to be fighting for them. The rights of man made way for the guillotine.

Burke’s insights are still relevant today. Take climate change, for example. It poses a serious threat, no doubt, but many of the solutions that have been proposed will have serious repercussions that may produce more harm than good. Corn ethanol was seen by many environmentalists as a positive step away from oil. But with corn being converted into fuel, not food, food prices soared in the developing world, leaving millions hungry.

When it comes to poverty, the natural reaction is to create welfare programs to try to help people as much as possible. To some extent, these programs have been successful. But economists like Thomas Sowell argue that the welfare system can also create the wrong kind of incentives that end up keeping people in a permanent underclass. Conservatives argue that we should be aware of these other dynamics in play.

This is not to say that conservatism is perfect. A predisposition against change blinded conservatives against the evils of segregation. On the other hand, conservatives were profoundly right about the evil that was Communism, while liberal luminaries like John Kenneth Galbraith were seduced by the Soviet Union, singing its praises well into the ’80s.

It’s natural that we have the visceral “Something must be done!” reaction when confronted with the evils of this world, but we need to recognize the fact that humans have an innate bias toward intervention, as best-selling author and New York University statistician Nassim Nicholas Taleb once observed.

The role for conservatism in politics is to continually remind us that humans are fallible and that we can never know all the consequences — good or bad — of our actions. The burden is on those who want change to prove that their proposals will actually improve society.

Anthony Dent is a senior economics major from Lumberton. Contact him at adent@live.unc.edu

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