Monthly Archives: April 2006

the “common good”

(Wisconsin) Thanks to regular reader Joe Sinatra, I recently read an article in which Michael Tomasky argued that the Democrats should use the language of “the common good” instead of emphasizing rights for various groups. David Brooks then did Tomasky no favor by endorsing his view in the New York Times and making him sound like a scathing critic of a caricatured version of “identity politics” (which he isn’t).

I’ve mainly considered the rhetoric of the “common good” in connection with the Progressive Movement. In 1900-1924, the original Progressives assumed that “the moral and the general were synonymous, and that which was unworthy [was] the private, the partial, interest.”* It was on this basis that they fought various forms of corruption and expanded the powers of the central state over the market. Appeals to the “common good” and “public interest” have been made at other times and from other points on the ideological spectrum. However, the Progressives contrasted the common good against special or private interests with striking consistency and fervor.

Mainstream liberalism since the 1960s has been quite different. I don’t endorse simplistic accounts of identity politics, but surely modern American liberals have been suspicious of the common good and more concerned about rights for distinct groups. Why?

1. In practice, the “common good” can mean the interests of the median voter, who (depending on how one describes the electorate) may turn out to be a white, working-class guy from the Midwest. That’s precisely the constituency that Brooks thinks the Democrats have lost by courting minorities, gays, immigrants, women, and so on. However, white, working-class guys from the Midwest are just one group with interests of its own. Liberals don’t want to identify those interests with the common good, even if doing so would help win elections. It wouldn’t be fair.

2. The phrase “common good” can be vacuous–available to anyone, and equivalent to saying that one’s positions are right or good. For instance, people claim the mantle of the “common good” in arguing that wealth should be redistributed, or that individual economic freedom should prevail. Some equate the common good with private liberty; others claim that it means improving public morality. Maybe it means nothing at all.

Nevertheless, I’m not sure that Tomasky is wrong. Talking about the common good has several advantages.

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social change from an individual’s perspective

(On a flight to Milwaukee): At a meeting earlier this week, experts and advocates debated data on the civic participation of particular disadvantaged groups. The groups we were talking about don’t vote or volunteer, according to surveys conducted by the Census Bureau and other authorities. A crucial question arose: Do we believe that voting and volunteering rates measure worthwhile forms of behavior? Why don’t we measure, for example, business deals that build the strength of an ethnic community? Or the kind of deliberate foot-dragging and noncompliance that is often the resort of poor people when faced with oppressive power?

It occurred to me that we don’t have theories that tell us how an individual should act to cause social change. There are plenty of theories that try to explain when and why social change occurs, e.g., because of revolutions in the means of production, technological innovations, shifts in demographics and geographical distribution, crises of rising expectations, failures of the prevailing ideology to match reality …. But there are not many theories about what you or I should do if we have political goals. The standard theories sometimes even suggest that you and I can do nothing, because social change is not influenced by deliberate human action–but that view is surely overstated. I may be missing useful theories, but all I can think of are nostrums about the power of small-scale collective action, by the likes of Margaret Mead, Einstein, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King. I find their advice more inspirational than analytical.

If there were a true academic discipline of citizenship, one of its main questions would be: What are the best strategies for obtaining social change if you are an individual situated in various ways? That would be quite different from a more standard question in political science, which is: Why do institutions and policies change? If we could answer the first question, then we could say much more about the kinds of civic engagement that are most valuable for people in various situations. That would be much better than the standard approach right now, which is simply to use the available data to measure “participation,” as if it were self-evident that voting and volunteering are effective.

more on teaching patriotism

On Crooked Timber, Harry Brighouse has replied to my previous post about patriotism in schools. He is skeptical, mainly on the (reasonable) ground that patriotism causes or excuses partiality toward one’s fellow citizens, and such partiality is particularly problematic when one’s nation happens to be very rich and powerful. Harry’s post prompted several substantive replies: a good discussion in the Crooked Timber comment field. I’d only add that I feel somewhat awkward defending patriotic education in schools. I still think the arguments in favor outweigh those against, so I’m not ready to strike my flag (so to speak). However, instilling patriotic sentiments is far from the center of my own work and concerns. Apart from anything else, there is no evidence that young people lack patriotism, whereas there is plenty of reason to fear that they lack the confidence, skills, and interests necessary to be effective participants in democracy.

what should we get for $44 billion?

(New York City) The director of national intelligence, John D. Negroponte, recently disclosed that 100,000 people work for the US intelligence agencies. Not long before that disclosure, his deputy, Mary Margaret Graham, let slip that the intelligence budget of the United States is $44 billion.

I’m in favor of getting good intelligence, but those numbers look huge when put in context. The total cost of research in American degree-granting universities was $18 billion in 2000-2001. That figure excluded overhead (the cost of libraries, cafeterias, heating bills, etc). Furthermore, academic research is more expensive in 2006 than it was five years ago. Nevertheless, it appears that the intelligence agencies of the US spend more than the cost of research in all 4,236 American institutions of higher education put together.

I realize that intelligence is more expensive than some other forms of research, because some of the data must be collected against foreign countries’ will–which requires spy satellites, bugs, and bribes. But colleges and universities study a huge range of subjects (from global warming to ancient Sumerian) for a total that is smaller than what the US government spends to investigate foreign states and organizations.

A tiny proportion of academic research goes, for example, to studying modern Iraq. But is there any doubt that the academic experts on Iraq better predicted the results of an invasion than the $44-billion intelligence agencies? The same agencies utterly misunderstood the course of events in Czechoslovakia in 1968, the Middle East in 1973, Iran in 1979, the Soviet Union in the 1980s, Pakistan since 2000, and the Palestinian territories in the recent elections.

As libertarians and free-market conservatives should be the first to suspect, a monopolistic, bureaucratic, closed system of intelligence gathering is unlikely to be anything other than inefficient and incompetent. It may amass piles of secret data (to justify enormous budgets and to give it access to information that no one else has), but it will fail to interpret, synthesize, or predict. The late Senator Moynihan once wrote that during the Cold War, “error became a distinctive feature of the [national security] system. This is easy enough to explain. As everything became secret, it became ever more difficult to correct mistakes. Why? Because most of the people who might spot the mistakes were kept from knowing about them because the mistakes were classified.” [Moynihan, “The Peace Dividend,” New York Review of Books, (June 28, 1990), p. 3.]

With this warning in mind, we read that a CIA employee or alumnus was recently “refused permission to publish an op-ed article that drew on material from the agency’s Web site”; and the Agency’s inspector general has been given, or has chosen to take, a lie-detector test–but he cannot publicly say why.

“a concerted pushback”

(En route to Baltimore and New York City) In general, Americans are abandoning our obligation to prepare young people for active and responsible citizenship, but there was good news last week for those who want to revive civic education–which includes service opportunities, extracurricular activities, and whole-school reform as well as social studies classes.

Last Monday, as I already reported, the national advisory committee of the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools met. C-Span broadcast speeches by its co-chairs, former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and L.A. School Superintendent Roy Romer. The same meeting also generated a very nice syndicated column by David Broder entitled “Saving Democracy, Pupil by Pupil.” Broder writes that “No Child Left Behind,” the major education reform act of 2002,

was not intended to push other subjects out of the schools, but, Romer said, ‘Quite often, the tests that states will use for No Child Left Behind will be only on certain core subjects, such as language arts and math and sometimes science, and school systems, if not careful, can be warped into the neglect of social studies.’

O’Connor and Romer are the national spokesmen for a concerted pushback against these trends calling itself the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools ( Twenty-nine national organizations and a dozen notable private individuals have lent their support; foundation money as well is behind it.

Those 29 organizations and “notable” individuals then met on Friday for the semi-annual steering committee meeting of the Campaign, which I chaired. We approved a white paper on high school reform that we had debated and revised for more than a year. I like the final version, which the Campaign will soon release. We also discussed our position on No Child Left Behind, without (as yet) reaching agreement about what should be done.

On Thursday night, Justice O’Connor attended the annual awards dinner for Streetlaw, an organization that provides curriculum and training for civic education. In giving an award to Mrs. Cecilia Marshall (Justice Thurgood Marshall’s widow), she noted her own work for the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools and said that “civic education is very much part of my concern these days.” So it must be: in addition to giving the two speeches I mentioned above, the Justice also met privately with David Broder and chaired a meeting of the American Bar Association’s committee on civic education–all in one week.

I had the honor of giving Streetlaw’s Educator Award to an excellent high school teacher from Brooklyn, Patrick McGillicuddy. He has achieved remarkable success in a school reserved for students who have dropped out or been expelled from other institutions. He teaches the whole of American history as a series of mock trials. The kids not only have fun and learn debating skills; every one of them passes the New York State American History Regents Exam.