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January 24, 2005

strategy, for intellectuals

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:

1. The only mechanisms we have for distributing wealth and protecting rights are the actual governments that exist today. I can argue for equality of opportunity (or even for some degree of welfare equality), but I cannot defend the proposition that our government spends our money very effectively, transparently, accountably, or equitably. Thus a debate about how much wealth individuals should keep and how much should be redistributed is fundamentally sterile. It's politically irrelevant because it doesn't confront the main argument against government, which is not libertarian but pragmatic (i.e., government doesn't work very well). The debate is also normatively weak because it assumes that we can have better institutions than we do. That's like the economist on the desert island who "assumes a can-opener."

2. The premises of the debate are zero-sum. Politics, according to both left-liberals and libertarians, is a mechanism for distributing the goods that already exist. But citizens also have constructive potential; through politics, we can make new goods. Of course, one could develop an abstract political theory in favor of political creativity. But I suspect this would be very vague and unpersuasive unless it were anchored in current examples.

By coincidence, I recently read two separate scholarly descriptions of government in Hampton, VA. Hampton is an old, blue-color city, not in any way privileged. Yet the city has thoroughly reinvented its government and civic culture so that thousands of people are directly involved in city planning, educational policy, police work, and economic development. The prevailing culture is deliberative; people truly listen, share ideas, and develop consensus, despite differences of interest and ideology. Young people hold positions of responsibility and leadership. Youth have made believers out of initially suspicious police officers and school administrators.

Imagine that the whole country were more like Hampton. Then we could have a really interesting debate about distribution. If some people argued that the government should tax and spend more, their fellow citizens would see the potential advantages. They would feel capable of influencing the use of tax money. Meanwhile, libertarians would be able to make arguments in favor of markets and individual freedom; they might even prevail. But the whole discussion would be the opposite of sterile.

So how can intellectuals help to make America more like Hampton? First of all, they should aware of the civic innovation that is going on today. Thanks to the scholars who identified Hampton as a site of innovation, I was able to read two articles about that city. These scholars found Hampton through their own networks of practitioners. We need plenty more of that kind of writing. Second, we must grapple with the subtle and difficult issues that all such cases raise. How did Hampton get where it is today? Are its achievements sustainable? Are they replicable? Is the city's deliberation truly inclusive? Does all that participation generate good economic and social outcomes? Is democracy worth all the time people have to spend in meetings? To me, these are the crucial questions, much more likely to yield real social change than any novel argument in favor of equality.

Posted by peterlevine at January 24, 2005 07:40 AM


The word "stakeholder" is increasingly substituted for "participant" or "citizen." Which tells us something about the relationship between ownership and public policy.

Above all, citizen participation seems to require fast and satisfying results or "it's not worth it"! But that's the problem of an increasingly urban America. Small towns like Hampton and the one I live in still believe in process. For now.

Posted by: Bean at January 25, 2005 11:18 AM

Regarding strategy for intellectuals:

Michael Walzer spoke about his new book POLITICS AND PASSION Monday night at a DC bookstore. He seeks to expose the limits of the "deliberative democracy" trend in liberal political theory, derived from Habermans and Rawls. (I'd say those are low risk/high stakes ideas in the more Utopian streams)

Walzer believes this model strives for consensus over the conflict necessary in politics: sloganeering, organizing, bargaining, etc.

When pressed to consider the merits of deliberation (Porto Allegre in Brazil rather than Hampton, VA was the example) he suggested that non-deliberative means were essential to ever arrive at these deliberative processes.

A welcome addition to the conversation.


Posted by: Scott D at January 26, 2005 11:41 AM

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