Several earlier posts have raised the issues of social change and social progress (post, post). People sometimes want society to be different (change), and they want it to be better (progress). But not all outcomes are possible, and some possible outcomes are not sustainable over time. So how should we think about sweeping prescriptions for social change? What constraints does social reality impose upon the reformer? And what kinds of moral and political constraints should be respected as we advocate for change?
Consider an analogy with the natural sciences and engineering. Physics and the natural sciences set the boundary conditions on what kinds of structures can be built and used. Engineering design involves acquiring a detailed knowledge of the natural properties of materials and structures, and then designing artifacts that satisfy human needs. The human-built world is not determined by the laws of physics, since there are countless different technologies that could have satisfied human needs consistent with physics; but it is constrained by the laws of physics. What is the corresponding relationship between the social sciences and social reform?
Let’s begin by giving a schematic definition of a reform program. A program for reform consists of several things: a representation of the existing social world; a critique of some aspects of that world; a prescription for what the reformer believes would be a better social world; and a developed strategy for moving society from here to there. Reformers think that a specified set of changes will make for a better environment for some aspect of human life, for a group or for the population as a whole. The representation of the current social world may include several different kinds of elements: representation of typical social behavior, representation of existing institutions and practices, and representations of things like justice, power, inequality, and repression.
For example, suppose one was an anti-racist reformer in the US in 1850 or 1950. The diagnosis of the present may be that current institutions and majority attitudes, behaviors, and practices systematically repress, demean, and stunt members of the racial minority. The reformer’s goal may be the creation of a society in which racial oppression, discrimination, and bias do not exist. And the strategy may be to create powerful coalitions of players in society who will work effectively and quickly to disassemble racist laws and institutions and to educate the public to leave behind their racist attitudes and beliefs.
So what are some of the basic conditions of realism and feasibility that a legitimate program of reform must satisfy? For a proposed reform agenda to be rationally supportable, its goals must be feasible and accessible. The institutions, practices, and behaviors it postulates as an end state need to be consistent with what we know about how a society works. And there needs to be a possible pathway through which society can move from here to there.
In other words, the social reformer needs to demonstrate that —
- The described social arrangement can be implemented, given ordinary people and ordinary social processes and mechanisms; in other words, the social arrangement doesn’t require a miracle to be achieved.
- The arrangement will have a significant likelihood of being sustainable and self-reproducing, given ordinary people and ordinary social processes. No miracles are needed to sustain the new society.
- There is a feasible pathway that can take us from here to there, consistent with ordinary people AND some set of moral constraints (democracy, commitment to legal processes, no illegal use of force).
- The described social arrangement will be efficacious: it will have the social effects that it is planned to have.
A little more specifically, the program of reform needs to be consistent with our best understanding of how ordinary human beings behave. It needs to create incentives that are consistent with ordinary human behavior; and the behaviors that result from these incentives need to reinforce the stability of the institutions that the program postulates. We don’t need to offer a strong theory of universal human nature, in order to maintain that there are elements of motivation and psychology that are common among human beings and that will continue to drive their behavior in the future.
Second, the program needs to envision institutions that work correctly together: they successfully coordinate behavior, motivate citizens, raise public revenues, and maintain order as a coherent system. For example, we could have little confidence in a theory of the future that postulated a wide range of public services and a fiscal model that depended entirely on voluntary contributions by citizens to society’s coffers. And we would likewise be skeptical about a vision of the future that aggregated local functions like trash collection and building inspections to the national level.
Third, we would want to specify that we need to have a theory of democratic feasibility: that there is a strategy of change that can be successfully executed within the constraints of a democratic society. No “dictatorship of the proletariat” on the road to a more just future; no use of violence by a minority party aiming to achieve its goals by force.
The social sciences can assist with each of these challenges. Consider first the “ordinary behavior” condition. Empirical studies of human behavior — motivations, modes of reasoning, schemes of action — provide a rich set of tools in terms of which to assess the likely behavior of individuals within a hypothetical social context. Ethnography, social psychology, applied rational choice theory, and the philosophy of action all have much to contribute on this issue.
Turn next to the “institutional workings” condition. One of the central tasks of the “new institutionalism” is to provide theories of the mechanisms and processes through which specific institutions interact with human actors to bring about social outcomes. So institutionalists from sociology, political science, and economics have many of the tools necessary to provide an assessment of the likely workings of a specified set of hypothetical institutions.
The social sciences are also relevant to assessing the democratic feasibility requirement. Policies are implemented by governments, and governments are subject to a variety of political constraints. Within a democratic electoral system governments are unavoidably concerned about the effects of various policies on the electoral blocks upon which they depend. We can reason in some detail, as Adam Przeworski does in Capitalism and Social Democracy, about the feasibility of maintaining an electoral majority in favor of a given reform program over the period of time that would be required.
There is an important implication in all of this. Envisioning a better future for our society is a good thing. But in order to have a defensible plan for creating that future, we need to make the very best use possible of the social sciences in order to assess the feasibility, stability, and efficacy of the ideas for which we advocate. Not all visions for the future can be realized; and some visions turn out to have unintended and unanticipated consequences that have proven disastrous.