In a comment on last Thursday’s post, Michael Weiksner argues that political theorists employ a “high risk/high return” strategy for social change. They develop comprehensive, sometimes radical arguments that can be used in public debates. Mostly, such arguments have little influence, if only because there is no organized constituency or institution with the capacity to realize them. “But every now and again, you have Machievelli or JS Mill or Rawls, and their frameworks impact society for decades or longer.” In contrast, Michael says, people like me take a “hedged position.” We work closely with practitioners and communities. This strategy increases our odds of making a small difference but rules out any major effect. For instance, as a result of the projects I’m involved in, some day there may be better civics courses in high schools. There will definitely not be a new social order.
One problem with the high-risk strategy is that it may achieve catastrophically bad results. From Plato through Calvin to Marx, many of the most influential theorists have been, in my opinion, disastrously wrong. They have been wrong precisely because they have not been anchored in practical experience.
But there are also drawbacks to the low-risk strategy. Some thinkers who are deeply immersed in practice suffer from narrow horizons or excessive caution. John Dewey was an exemplary “engaged scholar,” yet he made some spectacularly bad calls (applauding World War I and opposing US entry into World War II, for instance). In any case, there is nothing dangerous about most of today’s highly abstract political theory. For example, Elizabeth Anderson’s arguments against natural property rights, posted on left2right, were what originally got me thinking about the role of political theory. If Anderson were somehow to influence popular opinion, no harm would follow–perhaps some good.
Nevertheless, I’m against the high risk/high return strategy for a different reason, one that’s specific to our time. Mainstream political philosophy has long been consumed with questions of distribution–who should get what goods and rights. For most liberals, property should be redistributed (to some limited degree). For most libertarians, existing property distributions should be left alone. I suppose that on a completely theoretical level, I lean the liberals’ way. But I see two problems with this whole debate:
It’s easy to criticize the man who gave the Inaugural Address yesterday?for his hypocrisy in not promoting human rights and freedom in allied countries that happen to be tyrannies, for his incompetence in the effort to develop democracy in Iraq, or for his failure to protect civil rights in the United States. However, the speech itself was a ringing endorsement of traditional American liberalism: internationalist, committed to human rights, ecumenical, and respectful of pluralism. There was not a conservative word in the speech, for better or worse.
I think it?s important to take statements as well as people seriously?and then to hold the speakers to what they say. Thus I applaud the speech (hear! hear!), but I hope we can remember which countries need the most attention if we are really going to make it “the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.” According to FreedomHouse (pdf), political liberties are least available in: Burma, Cuba, Haiti, Libya, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Swaziland, Syria, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Zimbabwe. Civil liberties are most absent in: Burma, Cuba, Libya, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Turkmenistan. Note the mixture of nations on the Bush enemies list (Cuba, North Korea, Syria), countries that are rarely mentioned by the US government or press (Swaziland, Turkmenistan), and countries that collaborate with us closely in military matters (Uzbekistan, Saudi Arabia). Our good friend Pakistan just barely misses the FreedomHouse list of worst offenders. What’s the plan for Pakistan?
(Warning: the following is probably self-indulgent, because it?s my effort to define my own scholarly career in contrast to other people?s. Please skip ruthlessly if you find this uninteresting.)
I have become a regular reader of Left2Right, a group blog written by a 29 distinguished political theorists, political philosophers, and constitutional scholars from the moderate to radical left. Two of the contributors are friends; I deeply admire them and several of the others whom I have never met. I received a similar professional training and hold similar views. I would eagerly trade my own skills, knowledge, and record of contribution for any of theirs.
Yet I?m evidently not doing the kind of work described on Left2Right?and not merely because I lack the necessary ability. I have chosen a different path from most of the contributors, and I think my choice is defensible.
Readers of this site know that I often discuss “civic education,” broadly defined–all our efforts to prepare the next generation for democratic self-government. In the narrower (but crucial) domain of formal, pre-college civic education, an important force is the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, which has several million dollars to advocate policy changes at the state and federal level. As of yesterday, the Campaign has established its own blog. The main authors will be members of our steering committee (who are leaders of two dozen relevant organizations), key members of the national staff, and people from the Campaign’s 18 state teams. A graduate student who works for me under the aegis of the National Alliance for Civic Education (NACE) will post news items on the Campaign’s blog almost daily. Of course, anyone can post replies and comments. If civic ed is your thing, please bookmark and contribute.
Instead of writing something for this blog today, I’ve contributed a fairly long post to a “symposium” on Rich Harwood’s website. My topic is why and how George Bush should begin to restore public trust. You are also invited to join the symposium by clicking the ad to the right.
As the Inauguration lays out a vision for the next 4 years, engage with Richard C. Harwood of The Harwood Institute and the leaders of Rock the Vote, Meetup.com, and other organizations that are on the forefront of change as they discuss the next chapter of America’s story. All this week on Redeeming Hope.
(The Harwood Institute is an important small institution that works with communties, newsrooms, organizations, and others to improve public life.)