Social Security reform: statecraft as soulcraft | Main | Gorgeous George, Jim Traficant, and some thoughts on populism

May 06, 2005

realism in civic education

As the Stanford psychologist William Damon observes, if you ask students to define "democracy," they tend to say that it means equal power for all plus the freedom to do what you want. But freedom and equality are in tension. In a system of one person, one vote, majorities will support laws that constrain individual choice. In a free polity, people will accumulate various forms of capital (cash, knowledge, social networks) that give them unequal political power. Even taken separately, freedom and equality are utopian goals. We don't know how to achieve perfect freedom. A minimal state would leave young people at the mercy of their parents and deprive many citizens of the education and economic security that are the basis of free choice. Yet if we have a government, we do not have perfect private liberty. Likewise, we don't know how to achieve complete political equality. In any commercial system, wealthy people have more political clout than poor people. As Charles Lindblom argued, firms have a "privileged position" because they can always withdraw investments from a community or nation that harms their interests. There seems to be no way around that logic. Even in communist and socialist regimes, party leaders accumulate power and hand it down to their children, as if they owned "the people's" farms and factories. Finally, if we could maximize both freedom and equality, it is not clear that we would want to do so. We also care about prosperity, sustainability, the conservation of nature, pluralism, cultural excellence, community values, and other goods that trade off against each other.

Young people should think about these tradeoffs, so that they can make intelligent choices and not be disappointed by the failure of utopian hopes. For what it's worth, the following would be something like my own view: We live in a commercial polity that is deeply imbued with, and dependent on, prosperity. In order to have economic growth, it is necessary to cede some political power to the people who make decisions about investments. As a result, they will live better than their fellow citizens. The questions become: Who makes decisions about investments (a few very rich individuals, professional corporate managers, or many investors)? What motivations guide them? (For instance, an educated, landed aristocracy will have different motives from a publicly traded corporation.) And how can we make sure that the power of investors is really used to promote general prosperity rather than very narrow self-interests?

A "realist" civic education would be quite different from what we give most young people today. It strikes me that standard social studies teaching combines excessive idealism about grand abstract goods with reflexive cynicism about our actual institutions. So young people think that "democracy" means perfect freedom and equality, but "the government" and "politicians" merely answer to the highest bidder. In truth, the modern state does have perverse and corrupt incentives, but it should be measured against a realistic standard.

Posted by peterlevine at May 6, 2005 10:10 AM


Your proposal for a "realist" civic education acknowledges competing democratic values and exposes the inevitable perversion of pure liberty and equality by those who control capital flows -- thus overcoming the idealism of "get involved" mantras given to youth that mask the more common sullen stance of "why bother" that most of us share.

Plus you address the question in our field...

-- is civic education non-partisan or outcome neutral? are values demonstrated under the guise of neutrality?

I support your "realism" proposal as reasonable and not an overtly liberal proposal.


Posted by: Scott Dinsmore at May 10, 2005 07:42 PM

Post a comment

This blog is under attack from comment spammers, who are causing a problem for the server. I believe I can block them by upgrading to a recent version of MoveableType. However, I do not have time to do that until late December. Therefore, I have temporarily disabled comments. Please feel free to email me feedback at

Site Meter