Farmers, Founders, and Fratricide: The Story of Cain and Abel

First Things, April 1996.


Once one gets right down to it, the difference between liberals and conservatives traces home to a disagreement about the basic source of human troubles.

Liberals are inclined to blame external causes—for example, poverty, prejudice, poor rearing, or just plain misfortune—against which they take up arms in order progressively to enable man’s natural goodness and felicity to emerge out from under; for liberals, it is the scientists, inventors, and caregivers who are the truest benefactors of the race, helping to overcome necessity and to extend human dominion over an inhospitable world.

Conservatives are inclined to blame human misery rather on causes lurking naturally within the souls of men—pride, vanity, jealousy, greed, and insatiable or unruly desires. Accordingly, conservatives are skeptical about human perfectibility and suspicious of utopian projects, not least because they would have to be conducted by imperfect fellow human beings, always dangerously unfit to remake the world; for conservatives, it is the priests, prophets, and lawgivers who are the truest benefactors of the race, helping to restrain vice and to encourage human self-command in the ceaseless struggle raging in the human soul between our better and worse natures.

First Things