beyond civic piety

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” –Margaret Mead

This is one of the most popular quotations in my world. I can’t count how many times I’ve seen it printed out and hung on office walls. I think I understand the motivations that led Mead to say it. She was exhorting us to work together and make the world better.

But what she said isn’t literally true. Technological changes, institutional inertia, markets, clashes of social classes and other demographic groups, disciplined organizations, violence, tyranny, and sheer accidents also “change the world.” For instance, a big flood recently changed New Orleans a whole lot. It changed the city for the worse, and that brings up a separate problem with Margaret Mead’s quotation. Changing the world is morally ambiguous–it can be good or bad. The World War I veterans who gathered around Mussolini and Hitler were “small group[s] of … committed citizens,” and they made the world a lot worse. I deleted the word “thoughtful” in describing them, but they did think a lot about social issues and strategies. They just thought in a bad way.

I don’t mean to take cheap shots at Margaret Mead, but rather to emphasize that we need a really serious investigation of these questions:

  • When can “a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens” change the world?
  • How can they be most effective?
  • What are good means and good ends for these groups?

Of course, there is great writing on these topics, of which we selected some favorite texts for our Summer Institute’s syllabus. But I believe there is much less scholarship than you would expect, for these reasons:

1. Addressing these questions requires a mix of facts and ethics, “is” and “ought” (or, in academic jargon, empirical and normative discourse); and that mix is rare. The social sciences are still heavily positivist and unable to deal openly with normative questions. Political philosophy is too abstract and not informed enough by practical experience.

2. Paying attention to the effects of small-group politics seems naive, since big, impersonal social forces probably have more impact on outcomes. Academic “realism” marginalizes human agency. But small-group politics is morally important–it’s what we should do. It’s also more significant than the “realists” believe, although less powerful than Margaret Mead implied.

3. Human agency takes place at a moderate scale. It’s not just “micro”–a matter of individual choices such as whether to lie, or to vote, or to use birth control. It’s also not just “macro,” involving the basic structure of a whole society. We human beings cannot directly change basic structures, but we can do more than make individual choices. We can work in political groups. Somehow, political theory and philosophy ignore the moderate scale in favor of the micro and the macro. (A exception, just to illustrate what we need more of, is this paper by Archon Fung.)

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