The Melioristic Bias

President Obama signing the Affordable Care Act in 2010
 President Obama signing the Affordable Care Act in 2010

The melioristic perspective is a useful indicator of how an individual has constituted the future and their role in it.

When most people use the term “rhetoric,” they usually mean it as the name for a verbal facade: an artificial construction far removed from what a person actually thinks.  But a University of Chicago thinker a generation ago made a convincing case that our rhetoric tends to have its own unique “signature.”  Our words, he noted, always “mark” us.

Richard Weaver
         Richard Weaver

Richard Weaver never demonstrated his point more convincingly than in his observation that the sciences have a “melioristic bias.”1  His idea was that those working in the social sciences have faith in their abilities to find solutions to human problems that will make things better.  That’s the essence of the bias: a conviction that human institutions tend to evolve rather than devolve.  His point was that our scientific discourse reveals how much we operate on the underlying assumption that we can ameliorate social dislocations.  From this perspective, a program like Social Security is an answer to the once chronic problem of old-age poverty.  It’s the result of the kind of progressive lawmaking in the mid-1930s that many of us still admire.

Here’s the interesting thing about the melioristic bias. Operating on the assumption of the transformative power of institutions is what gives political progressivism its energy. Challenging social conditions are seen as opportunities for fixes, reforms and new policies that can further the cause of social justice.  This belief is the core catechism of American liberalism.

Weaver became an important figure in the evolution of conservative thought in the 1960s.  It seems clear from his work that he viewed the “true” political conservative as someone who is more willing to accept certain human tendencies as givens and less amenable to bureaucratic fixes.  In simple terms, societies are not going to be significantly transformed for the better simply by using the rhetoric and machinery of social change, which ask for more than it is in the nature of institutions to deliver.

This belief in the need to recognize certain “essences” of human nature was central to Weaver’s view.  From his perspective the rhetoric of change and the realities of change are two different things.  We may idealize a solution—increased access to medical care in the Affordable Care Act, for example—but the actual organizational response to a given social issue is always going to be problematic. A conservative usually can’t imagine so complex a piece of organizational planning as likely to be effective.

This skeptical stance is representative of a baseline view that puts greater faith in individual human agency rather than bureaucratic power, a difference that explains the “government-is- the-problem-not-the solution” logic that thrived in the Reagan years and survives in the current Republican Congress.  Somehow massive corporations are mostly seen as immune to the same problems.

Of course this simplified view of the world overlooks how individuals can be dispersed along the continuum that separates these polar opposites. Nonetheless, it remains a useful kind of insight to look for the melioristic perspective as a sign of how an individual has constituted the future and their role in it. See the world as a place of eminently doable reforms–still my view, even though its picked up some dings over the years–and you have a reasonable indicator of a political liberal. In contrast, identify someone who sees progress largely through individual rather than organizational initiatives, and you have probably discovered a classical conservative. Either way, the bias is easily discovered when a person’s rhetoric drifts toward consequential topics.

1Richard Weaver, The Ethics of Rhetoric (Chicago: Gateway, 1953), 194-200.