Moral progress and critical realism

Critical realists share a rejection of the fact-value distinction as a fundamental criterion of scientific rationality — and rightly so (link). They believe that social research and theorizing involve value commitments all the way down. Further, they commonly believe that good social science should lead to improvement in the world and in our system of moral judgments.

So far, so good. But some critical realists think that this points to “moral realism” as well as scientific realism. Moral realism maintains that there are objective and timeless answers to the questions, what is justice? what should we do? what rights do people have? Moral realists hold that holds that the moral facts are out there and waiting for discovery; there is a domain of “moral facts” that ultimately goes beyond the limits of rational disagreement.

This impulse towards moral realism is a problem. Moral realism and scientific realism are not analogous. There is no philosophical or theological method that will resolve moral questions into an unquestionable foundation or set of universal moral truths. Neither Kantianism, nor Aristotelianism, nor utilitarianism, nor traditional religious systems have the capacity to establish universal and unquestionable moral conclusions. The impulse towards moral realism has the perilous possibility of morphing into a dogmatic view of morality that substitutes one’s own convictions for eternal moral truths. In my view, this is farfetched and ultimately implies an unreflective dogmatism about values. Fortunately there is a better and more modest position available that drives from the same pragmatist origins that are inspiring other advances in critical realism.

The better approach is based on a coherence epistemology. This approach is explicitly anti-realist when it comes to moral values. Ethical reasoning always has to do with conversation, disagreement, and sometimes progress. Moral practices have social reality, to be sure; but there are no “moral facts” consisting of moral principles and values that are beyond the possibility of further rational debate. This approach to moral theory emphasizes corrigibility and pragmatic debate about ends, means, and values. It converges with coherence epistemology along the lines of Quine and Rawls; it deliberately replaces a foundationalist approach to moral thinking with a corrigible ongoing series of discussions by moral equals. This allows for an epistemology based on dialogue, and it comes out of the pragmatist tradition.

This is the approach that John Rawls adopted in his theory of reflective equilibrium. Rawls explicitly links his approach to the anti-foundationalist thinking of philosophers like Quine. (Here is a 1985 paper in which I tried to summarize Rawls’s moral methodology of reflective equilibrium; link.) Moral reasoning involves a back-and-forth between a set of considered judgments (current moral judgments about concrete issues) and more abstract moral principles. Both considered judgments and abstract principles are adjusted until the system of beliefs is reasonably consistent and coherent. Here is how Rawls describes this process of moral navigation with respect to the idea of the original position in A Theory of Justice 2nd edition:

In searching for the most favored description of this situation [the hypothetical original position] we work from both ends. We begin by describing it so that it represents generally shared and preferably weak conditions. We then see if these conditions are strong enough to yield a significant set of principles. If not, we look for further premises equally reasonable. But if so, and these principles match our considered convictions of justice, then so far well and good. But presumably there will be discrepancies. In this case we have a choice. We can either modify the account of the initial situation or we can revise our existing judgments, for even the judgments we take provisionally as fixed points are liable to revision. By going back and forth, sometimes altering the conditions of the contractual circumstances, at others withdrawing our judgments and conforming them to principle, I assume that eventually we shall find a description of the initial situation that both expresses reasonable conditions and yields principles which match our considered judgments duly pruned and adjusted. This state of affairs I refer to as reflective equilibrium. It is an equilibrium because at last our principles and judgments coincide; and it is reflective since we know to what principles our judgments conform and the premises of their derivation. At the moment everything is in order. But this equilibrium is not necessarily stable. It is liable to be upset by further examination of the conditions which should be imposed on the contractual situation and by particular cases which may lead us to revise our judgments. Yet for the time being we have done what we can to render coherent and to justify our convictions of social justice. We have reached a conception of the original position. (TJ 18)

This approach leads to two important features. (i) There are no fixed and final moral facts; moral facts are not part of the furniture of the world. But (ii) our moral frameworks have the potential of improving over time, as we grope reflectively with our moral responses, sympathies, and principles. There is a bootstrapping kind of progress here.

What Rawls adds is the idea that our efforts to move toward reflective equilibrium permit us to increase the overall adequacy of our system of beliefs and considered judgments. And this ties directly to his treatment of Political Liberalism — an ongoing discourse allowing us to refine and reform our convictions on the basis of communication with fellow members of our communities and groups. (Habermas and the public communicative process converges here as well.)

It is clear enough that no group is likely ever to reach full unanimity in a discussion like this. This is implied by Rawls’s own conception of a liberal society including people with conflicting conceptions of the good. And ultimately a society can be very stable even as it embraces multiple conceptions of the good and other important questions of value.

These considerations suggest that we should abandon the idea of absolute moral truth (moral realism) and embrace instead the goal of securing a respectful, thoughtful dialogue that creates a possibility of moral progress. We may have the optimistic hope that a community or society improves its ability to make moral perceptions and distinctions over time, through the practice of debating and testing the normative ideas that are shared and those that divide the population.

The ongoing work by various theorists on deliberative democracy sheds some light on the concrete ways in which this kind of moral clarification can work within a group of citizens and otherwise unrelated people. (Here is a programatic statement from the Center for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance; link.) Everyone brings a moral and value sensibility to their interactions and reactions to the world, and sometimes those sensibilities can change through interaction with other individuals. Consideration of facts, complications, and alternative ways of stating various value commitment permit the individuals to honestly reflect on their commitments and social reactions and perhaps adjust them. (Here is a discussion of deliberative democracy; link. And here is a recent paper by Archon Fung on deliberative democracy and progressive social change; link.)

(Richmond Campbell’s entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on “Moral Epistemology” is excellent as background on this topic; link.)

Jobs, basic income, and the future of the techno-market economy

In the dystopian vision of the future described in William Gibson’s Sprawl novels, there are few people with normal jobs, regular sources of income, retirement plans, and health insurance. Instead, there are hackers, freelance security guards, software traffickers, criminals at many levels, and a few distant corporations with scientists and managers. It is a grim picture.

But how distant is that future from our current trajectory? Is that pretty much where we are heading? With the effort to shed 24 million Americans from health insurance; with the disappearance of “good” industrial jobs; with the rise of the gig economy; with the super-extreme development of inequalities of income and wealth, based on privileged positions in the financial and tech economies — do these trends not seem like early-stage Gibson?

Philippe van Parijs has long been an advocate for a very fundamental change to the legal and economic structure of a capitalist democracy, the establishment of a universal basic income for all citizens and legal residents of a country. A recent statement of his position (with Yannick Vanderborght) is Basic Income: A Radical Proposal for a Free Society and a Sane Economy. The central value that drives van Parijs’ social philosophy is “real freedom”. And he believes that the creation of a legal commitment to universal basic income within advanced democracies is both politically feasible and desirable for the impact it would have on the levels of freedom enjoyed by the most disadvantaged members of society. Here is how van Parijs and Vanderborght put the fundamental point:

A basic income is not just a clever measure that may help alleviate urgent problems. It is a central pillar of a free society, in which the real freedom to flourish, through work and outside work, will be fairly distributed. It is an essential element of a radical alternative to both old socialism and neoliberalism, of a realistic utopia that offers far more than the defense of past achievements or resistance to the dictates of the global market. It is a crucial part of the sort of vision needed to turn threats into opportunities, resignation into resolution, anguish into hope. (kl 81)

What should be the level of a universal basic income? Parijs and Vanderborght choose as a benchmark the 25th percentile of a country’s GDP per capita. In the US this would amount to $1,163 and in Brazil $180 (kl 235). For a US family of five including two adults, this amounts to $2,326 per month — roughly the current level of the US poverty threshold for a family of five. (Van Parijs and Vanderborght address the relation between the UBI and the poverty threshold; kl 252.)

The current issue of Boston Review includes a forum on “Work, Inequality, Basic Income”, with essays and discussions by Brishen Rogers, Philippe van Parijs, Dorian Warren, Tommie Shelby, Diane Coyle, and others. It is “must” reading for anyone concerned about the question of how we can craft an equitable and livable world in the context of a market economy in the coming decades.

Here is how Brishen Rogers describes the idea of universal basic income in his anchor essay:

The idea is simple: the state would provide regular cash grants, ideally sufficient to meet basic needs, as a right of citizenship or lawful residency. Understood as a fundamental right, basic income would be unconditional, not means-tested and not contingent on previous or current employment. It would help sever the link between work and welfare, provide income security for all who are eligible, and perhaps mitigate growing inequality. It could also enable people to provide unpaid work or community service, start new businesses, or get an education. (

Forum

14)

Rogers places a great deal of emphasis on the changes in the power relations between capital and labor that are implicit in the technology revolution currently underway. Workers (think Uber drivers or Amazon inventory fulfillers) are more and more disempowered with respect to their conditions of work, including wage levels but also including job satisfaction, job security, workplace safety and health standards, and other features of meaningful work experience. Rogers thinks that basic income is a good idea, but one that needs to be part of a more comprehensive package of reforms.

An alternative case for basic income draws from classic commitments to social democracy, or an economic system in which the state limits corporate power, ensures a decent standard of living for all, and encourages decent work. In the social democratic view, however, a basic income would be only art of the solution to economic and social inequalities — we also need a revamped public sector and a new and different collective bargaining system. Indeed, without such broader reforms, a basic income could do more harm than good. (15)

Elizabeth Anderson’s critique of van Parijs in an earlier Boston Review forum on universal basic income strikes a similar note (link). Anderson believes that the “real libertarian” foundations of van Parijs’s arguments for UBI are unconvincing, and they are inconsistent with the broader goal of establishing a just society within the circumstances of a capitalist democracy. Van Parijs over-estimates income relative to other social entitlements. Her summary is straightforward: “I will argue that Van Parijs’s real libertarianism cannot justify a UBI, but that a UBI may have some promise as a supplementary part of a larger social welfare package that is justified on other grounds.”

So let’s consider whether the establishment of a universal basic income would in fact lead to a substantially better level of quality of life and real freedom for the disadvantaged in a given capitalist democracy. To start, the level of basic income postulated by van Parijs and Vanderborght is by no means comparable to the level of living standards associated with a current unionized American worker. At $18/hour, a single earner family in the automotive manufacturing sector generates about $36,000 per year; with two earners this may rise to $48,000-$72,000 per year, depending on the nature of the second earner’s job and number of hours of work. So the universal basic income does not substitute for “good jobs”.

But this is perfectly clear to the advocates for a universal basic income. Their vision is not that the UBI is the sole source of income for most people most of the time. Both private employment and social provisioning would also be part of the individual’s overall bundle of entitlements.

Contrary to the way in which it is sometimes characterized and to the chagrin of those among its advocates who want to sell it as a radical simplification, a basic income should not be understood as being, by definition, a full substitute for all existing transfers, much less a substitute for the public funding of quality education, quality health care, and other services. (kl 252)

Rather than constituting an all-round solution to the problem of living well in a capitalist democracy, the UBI is a safety net in the context of which individuals can seek out employment of various kinds.

It does not amount to giving up the objective of full employment sensibly interpreted. For full employment can mean two things: full-time paid work for the entire able-bodied part of the population of working age, or the real possibility of getting meaningful paid work for all those who want it. As an objective, the basic income strategy rejects the former but embraces the latter. (kl 617)

Individuals can use their skills and their interests to generate additional income permitting higher levels of prosperity and job satisfaction. And in a country in which access to affordable healthcare and free public education are rights, we can begin to see how van Parijs can assert that UBI would be a foundation for real freedom of choice and life plan.

This, then, is van Parijs’s response to Rogers and Anderson: his view too depends upon a host of social-democratic reforms, including access to healthcare, education, and other critical components of quality of life. But this seems to concede the point: the reforms we need are broader than simply establishing UBI. And that seems to be correct. We need social democracy, and UBI may be a valuable component of a full social-democratic regime.

(The moral basis for an extensive state along the lines of the Nordic examples was discussed in a prior post; link. The topic of rapid change in employment opportunities in advanced capitalism came up earlier in a post about “A Jobless Future”; link. Also of interest is a post on the social construction of work; link. And here is a post on alternatives to capitalism; link.)

A fresh approach to life plans

There isn’t a clear philosophy of life-planning in the literature. So let’s start from scratch. What do we need in order to make a plan for any temporally extended project?

  • An assessment of the outcomes we want to bring about
  • An assessment of the likely workings of the natural and social environment in which action will occur
  • A theory about how to achieve those outcomes — strategy and tactics
  • An assessment of the likelihood of negative interactions among various aspects of the plan
  • An assessment of the riskiness of the environment
  • A backup plan if things go off the rails — plan B!

We would like to arrive at a plan that has a high probability of success, and one for which there are soft landings available when future expectations are not fulfilled. If my goal is to become a symphony conductor but I also know that the qualifications needed would equally qualify me to be a performer, and if performing itself is an agreeable outcome, then aiming at conductor is less risky.

We know what it is to be rational about limited choices like choosing a new car, picking a vacation destination, or investing retirement savings. Each of these decisions falls within a broad degree of certainty of assumptions for us: we know that we enjoy the beach more than the opera, that we want a fair degree of security in our retirement accounts, or that we need a car that is good in wet weather. That is to say, we know a lot about our tastes, our future needs, and our current circumstances. So small-gauge choices like these depend fairly simply on locating a solution that serves our tastes and preferences in our current and near-future circumstances. With these conditions fixed, we can then go about the information gathering that allows us to assess how well the available sets of alternatives serve our tastes, needs, and circumstances.

Sometimes we can even reduce our choice situations to a simple set of cost-benefit tradeoffs: I’ll get a 20% improvement in crash-worthiness by paying an additional $10,000 for the car I choose; I’ll have a chance on a 10% annual return on an investment if I accept a greater degree of risk; etc. And I might find that I like the tradeoff for one set of costs but not for another — more safety is worth $10,000 to me but not $50,000. Or I will accept the greater investment risk when it means moving from 1% chance of losing everything to a 3% chance, but not to a 10% chance.

A life plan isn’t like this, however. Consider the space of choices that confronts the 20-year old college student Miguel: what kind of work will satisfy me over the long term? How much importance will I attribute to higher income in twenty years? Do I want to have a spouse and children? How much time do I want to devote to family? Do I want to live in a city or the countryside? How important to me is integrity and consistency with my own values over time? These kinds of questions are difficult to answer in part because they don’t yet have answers. Miguel will become a person with a set of important values and commitments; but right now he is somewhat plastic. It is possible for him to change his preferences, tastes, values, and concerns over time. So perhaps his plan needs to take these kinds of interventions into account.

Another source of uncertainty has to do with the future of the world itself. Will the economy continue to provide decent opportunities for young people, or will income stratification continue to increase? Will climate change make some parts of the world much more difficult for survival? Will religious strife worsen so that safety is very difficult to achieve? Is Mary Poppins or William Gibson the better prognosticator of what the world will look like in thirty years? A plan that looks good in a Mary Poppins world may look much worse in the Sprawl (Gibson’s anti-utopian city of the future).

And then there is the difficult question of akrasia — weakness of the will. Can I successfully carry out my long term plans? Or will short term temptations make it impossible for me to sustain the discipline required to achieve my long term goals? (Somewhere Jon Elster looks at this problem as a collective action problem across stages of the self. Is this a reasonable approach?) For that matter, how much should future goods matter to me in the present?

It is worth asking whether life plans actually exist for anyone. Perhaps most people’s lives take shape in a more contingent and event-driven way. Perhaps guided opportunism is the best we are likely to do: look at available opportunities at a given moment, pursue the opportunity that seems best or most pleasing at that point, and enjoy the journey. Or perhaps there are some higher-level directional rules of thumb — “choose current options that will contribute in the long run to a higher level of X”. In this scenario there is no overriding plan, just a series of local choices. This alternative is pretty convincing as a way of thinking about the full duration of a person’s life, as any biographer is likely to attest.

Consider an analogy with the life of a city or state: decisions and policies are established at various points in time. These decisions contribute to the life course of the city; monuments established in 200 BCE continued to inform Roman life in 300 AD. But Rome was indeed not built in a day, and its eventual course was not envisaged or planned by any of its founders and leaders. A city’s “life” is the complex resultant of deliberation at many points in time, struggle, and contingency. And perhaps this describes a person’s life as well.

This point of view has a lot in common with Herbert Simon’s 1957 concept of bounded rationality and satisficing rather than maximizing as a rule of rational decision-making (Models of Man). Instead of heroically attempting to plan for all contingencies over the full of one’s life, a bounded approach would be to consider short periods and make choices over the opportunity sets available during those periods. And if we superimpose on these choices a higher-level set of goals to be achieved — having time with family, living in conformity to one’s moral or religious values, gaining a set of desired character traits — then we might argue that this decision-making process will be biased towards outcomes that favor one’s deeper values as well as one’s short-term needs and interests.

This approach will not optimize choices over the full lifetime; but it may be the only approach that is feasible given the costs of information gathering and scenario assessment.

So what about a rational life plan? At this point the phrase seems inapropos to the situation of a person’s relationship to his or her longterm “life”. A life is more of a concatenation of a series of experiences, projects, accidents, contingencies — not a planned artifact or painting or building. A life is not a novel, a television series, or a mural with an underlying storyboard in which each element has its place. And therefore it seems inapt to ask for a rational plan of life. Individuals make situated and bounded deliberative decisions about specific issues. But they don’t plot out their lives in detail. 

 

What seems more credible is to ask for a framework of navigation, a set of compass points, and a general set of values and purposes which get invested through projects and activities. The idea of the bildungsroman seems more illuminating — the idea of a young person taking shape through a series of challenging undertakings over time. Development, formation, values clarification, and the formation of character seem more true to what we might like to see in a good life than achieving a particular set of outcomes.

 

Where, then, do thinking and reasoning come into the picture? This is where Socrates and Montaigne seem to be relevant. They look at living as an opportunity for deepening self-knowledge and articulation of values and character. “To philosophize is to learn how to die” (Montaigne) and “The unexamined life is not worth living” (Socrates). The upshot of these aphorisms seems to be this: reasoning and philosophizing allow us to probe, question, and extend our values and the things we strive for. And having examined and probed, we are also in a position to assess and judge the actions and goals that are presented to us at various stages of life. How does a college major, a first job, a marriage, or a parenting challenge frame the future into which the young person develops? And how can practical reflection about one’s current values help to give direction to the future choices he or she makes later in life?
Practical rationality perhaps amounts to little more than this when it comes to constructing a life: to consider one’s best understanding of the goods he or she cares most about, and acting in the present in ways that shape the journey towards a future that better embodies those goods for the person and his or her concerns.

Rational life plans

Aristotle, Kant, and Rawls agree: people ought to have rational plans of life to guide their everyday efforts and activities. But what is involved in being rational about one’s plan of life? And really, what is a plan of life? Is it a sketch of a lifetime goal, along with some indications of the efforts that are currently thought to lead to this goal? Is it a blueprint for organizing one’s thinking, actions, investments, time, resources, and character over time in order to bring about the intended goal? Or is it something more flexible that this? Did Walter White in Breaking Bad have a plan of life, either before and after his cancer diagnosis? Did Dostoevsky have a plan of life? How about Wagner or Whitman? Is it possible to be rational in making partial or full life plans? How have philosophers thought about this topic?

Planning means orchestrating one’s activities over time in such a way as to bring about good outcomes over the full period. When a person plans for a renovation of his/her home, he or she considers the reasons for considering the renovation; the results to be achieved; the enhancements that would contribute to those results; the resources that are necessary to fund those enhancements; the amount of time that will be required for each of the sub-tasks; and so forth. With a good plan and a good execution, it is likely that a good outcome will be achieved: an improved residence that was accomplished within the budgeted time and resources available.

A plan of life is something larger than a plan for a house renovation, though it has some aspects in common. John Rawls was the philosopher in recent times who brought this idea into serious attention. The concept plays a crucial role within his theory of justice in A Theory of Justice. (Perhaps Aristotle is the ancient philosopher who had the greatest interest in this idea.) Rawls introduces the idea in the context of his discussion of primary goods.

The main idea is that a person’s good is determined by what is for him the most rational long-term plan of life given reasonably favorable circumstances. A man is happy when he is more or less successfully [sic] in the way of carrying out this plan. To put it briefly, the good is the satisfaction of rational desire. We are to suppose, then, that each individual has a rational plan of life drawn up subject to the conditions that confront him. This plan is designed to permit the harmonious satisfaction of his interests. It schedules activities so that various desires can be fulfilled without interferences. It is arrived at by rejecting other plans that are either less likely to succeed or do not provide for such an inclusive attainment of aims. Given the alternatives available, a rational plan is one which cannot be improved upon; there is no other plan which, taking everything into account, would be preferable. (TJ 92-93)

Several things are noteworthy about this description. First, it involves scheduling activities so as to “harmoniously satisfy interests”, which is paraphrased as “fulfilling desires without interferences”. In other words, Rawls’s account of a plan of life is a fairly shallow one in terms of the assumptions it makes about the person. It takes desires as fixed and then “plans” around them to ensure their optimal satisfaction. But there are other things that we might want to include in a plan of life: choices about one’s enduring character, for example. And second, Rawls makes very heroic assumptions here by requiring that a rational plan of life is a uniquely best plan, an optimal plan, one which cannot be improved upon.

There is a very direct connection between planning and rationality. But, surprisingly, this connection has not been a strong topic of interest within philosophy. The most important exception is in the work of David Bratman, including his 1987 book, Intention, Plans and Practical Reason. Here are a few key ideas from Bratman’s book:

Our need for plans concerning the future is rooted in two very general needs. We are rational agents, to some extent. For us this means in part that deliberation and, more generally, rational reflection help shape what we do. If, however, our actions were influenced only by deliberation at the time of action, the influence of such deliberation would be rather minimal. This is so because deliberation requires time and other limited resources, and there is an obvious limit to the extent to which one may successfully deliberate at the time of action. 2 So we need ways to allow deliberation and rational reflection to influence action beyond the present.

 

 

 

Second, we have pressing needs for coordination. To achieve complex goals I must coordinate my present and future activities. And I need also to coordinate my activities with yours. Anyone who has managed to write a lecture, pick up a book at the library, attend a committee meeting, and then pick up a child at school will be familiar with the former type of intra personal coordination. And anyone who has managed to arrange and participate in a committee meeting with several colleagues will be familiar with the latter sort of inter personal coordination. Of course, as the examples make clear, we are typically in need of both sorts of coordination; for we are both temporally extended and social agents. And as we all learn to our chagrin, neither sort of coordination happens effortlessly.

 

We do not, of course, promote coordination and extend the influence of deliberation by means of plans that specify, once and for all, everything we are to do in the future. Such total plans are obviously beyond our limits. Rather, we typically settle on plans that are partial and then fill them in as need be and as time goes by. This characteristic incompleteness of our plans is of the first importance. It creates the need for a kind of reasoning characteristic of planning agents: reasoning that takes initial, partial plans as given and aims at filling them in with specifications of appropriate means, preliminary steps, or just relatively more specific courses of action. (section 1.1)

Here Bratman makes the connection between deliberation, intentions, and planning explicit: planning permits the coordination of one’s intentions over time. And in the final paragraph he correctly observes that there is no such thing as a complete plan for a topic; plans are created in order to be updated. (Notice, however, that this runs contrary to Rawls’s assumption quoted above.)

Jonathan Baron also gives some attention to the role of planning in deliberative reasoning in Rationality and Intelligence. Here is a statement from Baron:

A good definition of happiness … is the achievement of just these consequences, or, more precisely, the successful pursuit of a plan that is expected to lead to them …. If the world is at all predictable, rational plans and decisions will, on average, lead to better outcomes in this sense than will irrational ones. Luck, of course, may still intervene; a person might make the best decisions possible, but still be unhappy because things turned out badly. (RI 206)

There are several features of life that make it difficult to formulate a satisfactory theory of the formulation and assessment of rational life plans.

  • The extended timeframe of the planning problem: formulating a plan in one’s twenties that is intended to guide through the end of one’s life in his or her nineties. 
  • The fact of a person’s plasticity. Features of character, personality, habit, taste, and preference are all subject to a degree of purposive change. So it would seem that these should be the object of rational deliberative planning as well. But it is hard to see how to do this. 
  • The fact of the unpredictability of the external environment, both natural and social. 
  • The difficulty of designing a plan that is robust through dramatic change within the person.
  • The difficulty of incorporating possible future capabilities of changing the self and the body directly through genetic engineering.

These challenges make traditional rational-choice theory unpromising as a foundation for arriving at a theory of life planning. Traditional rational choice theory is designed around the assumption of exogenous and fixed preferences, the ability to assign utility to outcomes, and quantifiable knowledge of the likelihood of various outcomes. But the five factors mentioned here invalidate all these assumptions.

(Several earlier posts are relevant to this set of issues: link, link, link.)

Deliberative democracy and the age of social media

Several earlier posts have focused on the theory of deliberative democracy (link, link, link). The notion is that political decision-making can be improved by finding mechanisms for permitting citizens to have extended opportunities for discussion and debate over policies and goals. The idea appeals to liberal democratic theorists in the tradition of Rousseau — the idea that people’s political preferences and values can become richer and more adequate through reasoned discussion in a conversation of equals, and political decisions will be improved through such a process. This idea doesn’t quite equate to the wisdom of the crowd; rather, individuals become wiser through their interactions with other thoughtful and deliberative people, and the crowd’s opinions improve as a result.

Here is the definition of deliberative democracy offered by Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson in Why Deliberative Democracy? (2004):

Most fundamentally, deliberative democracy affirms the need to justify decisions made by citizens and their representatives. Both are expected to justify the laws they would impose on one another. In a democracy, leaders should therefore give reasons for their decisions, and respond to the reasons that citizens give in return… The reasons that deliberative democracy asks citizens and their representatives to give should appeal to principles that individuals who are trying to find fair terms of cooperation cannot reasonably reject. (3)

All political reasoning inherently involves an intermingling of goals, principles, and facts. What do we want to achieve? What moral principles do we respect as constraints on political choices? How do we think about the causal properties of the natural and social world in which we live? Political disagreement can derive from disagreements in each of these dimensions; deliberation in principle is expected to help citizens to narrow the range of disagreements they have about goals, principles, and facts. And traditional theorists of deliberative democracy, from the pre-Socratics to Gutmann, Thompson, or Fishkin, believe that it is possible for people of good will to come to realize that the beliefs and assumptions they bring to the debate may need adjustment.

But something important has changed since the 1990s when a lot of discussions of deliberative democracy took place. This is the workings of social media — blogs, comments, Twitter discussions, Facebook communities. Here we have millions of people interacting with each other and debating issues — but we don’t seem to have a surge of better or more informed thinking about the hard issues. On the one hand, we might hope that the vast bandwidth of debate and discussion of issues, involving enormous numbers of the world’s citizens, would have the effect of deepening the public’s understanding of complex issues and policies. And on the other hand, we seem to have the evidence of continuing superficial thinking about issues, hardening of ideological positions, and reflexive habits of racism, homophobia, and xenophobia. The Internet seems to lead as often to a hardening and narrowing of attitudes as it does to a broadening and deepening of people’s thinking about the serious issues we face.

So it is worth reflecting on what implications are presented to our ideas about democracy by the availability of the infrastructure of social media. It was observed during the months of the Arab Spring that Twitter and other social media platforms played a role in mobilization of groups of people sharing an interest in reform. And Guobin Yang describes the role that the Internet has played in some areas of popular activism in China (link). This is a little different from the theory of deliberative democracy, however, since mobilization is different from deliberative value-formation. The key question remains unanswered: can the quality of thinking and deliberation of the public be improved through the use of social media? Can the public come to a better understanding of issues like climate change, health care reform, and rising economic inequalities through the debates and discussions that occur on social media? Can our democracy be improved through the tools of Twitter, Facebook, or Google? So far the evidence is not encouraging; it is hard to find evidence suggesting a convergence of political or social attitudes deriving from massive use of social media. And the most dramatic recent example of change in public attitudes, the sudden rise in public acceptance of single-sex marriage, does not seem to have much of a connection from social media.

Here is a very interesting report by the Pew Foundation on the political segmentation of the world of Twitter (link). The heart of their findings is that Twitter discussions of politics commonly segment into largely distinct groups of individuals and websites (link).

Conversations on Twitter create networks with identifiable contours as people reply to and mention one another in their tweets. These conversational structures differ, depending on the subject and the people driving the conversation. Six structures are regularly observed: divided, unified, fragmented, clustered, and inward and outward hub and spoke structures. These are created as individuals choose whom to reply to or mention in their Twitter messages and the structures tell a story about the nature of the conversation.

If a topic is political, it is common to see two separate, polarized crowds take shape. They form two distinct discussion groups that mostly do not interact with each other. Frequently these are recognizably liberal or conservative groups. The participants within each separate group commonly mention very different collections of website URLs and use distinct hashtags and words. The split is clearly evident in many highly controversial discussions: people in clusters that we identified as liberal used URLs for mainstream news websites, while groups we identified as conservative used links to conservative news websites and commentary sources. At the center of each group are discussion leaders, the prominent people who are widely replied to or mentioned in the discussion. In polarized discussions, each group links to a different set of influential people or organizations that can be found at the center of each conversation cluster.

And here is the authors’ reason for thinking that the clustering of Twitter conversations is important:

Social media is increasingly home to civil society, the place where knowledge sharing, public discussions, debates, and disputes are carried out. As the new public square, social media conversations are as important to document as any other large public gathering. Network maps of public social media discussions in services like Twitter can provide insights into the role social media plays in our society. These maps are like aerial photographs of a crowd, showing the rough size and composition of a population. These maps can be augmented with on the ground interviews with crowd participants, collecting their words and interests. Insights from network analysis and visualization can complement survey or focus group research methods and can enhance sentiment analysis of the text of messages like tweets.

Here are examples of “polarized crowds” and “tight crowds”:

There is a great deal of research underway on the network graphs that can be identified within social media populations. But an early takeaway seems to be that segmentation rather than convergence appears to be the most common pattern. This seems to run contrary to the goals of deliberative democracy. Rather than exposing themselves to challenging ideas from people and sources in the other community, people tend to stay in their own circle.

So this is how social media seem to work if left to their own devices. Are there promising examples of more intentional uses of social media to engage the public in deeper conversations about the issues of the day? Certainly there are political organizations across the spectrum that are making large efforts to use social media as a platform for their messages and values. But this is not exactly “deliberative”. What is more intriguing is whether there are foundations and non-profit organizations that have specifically focused on creating a more deliberative social media community that can help build a broader consensus about difficult policy choices. And so far I haven’t been able to find good examples of this kind of effort.

(Josh Cohen’s discussion of Rousseau’s political philosophy is interesting in the context of fresh thinking about deliberation and democracy; link. And Archon Fung and Erik Olin Wright’s collection of articles on democratic innovation, Deepening Democracy: Institutional Innovations in Empowered Participatory Governance (The Real Utopias Project) (v. 4), is a very good contribution as well.)

Rationality over the long term

image: Dietrich Bonhoeffer with his students

Millions of words have been written on the topic of rationality in action. Life involves choices. How should we choose between available alternatives? Where should I go to college? Which job should I accept? Should I buy a house or rent an apartment? How much time should I give my job in preference to my family? We would like to have reasons for choosing A over B; we would like to approach these choices “rationally.”

These are all “one-off” choices, and rational choice theory has something like a formula to offer for the decider: gain the best knowledge available about the several courses of action; evaluate the costs, risks, and rewards of each alternative; and choose that alternative that produces the greatest expected level of satisfaction of your preferences. There are nuances to be decided, of course: should we go for “greatest expected utility” or should we protect against unlikely but terrible outcomes by using a maximin rule for deciding?

There are several deficiencies in this story. Most obviously, few of us actually go through the kinds of calculations specified here. We often act out of habit or semi-articulated rules of thumb. Moreover, we are often concerned about factors that don’t fit into the “preferences and beliefs” framework, like moral commitments, conceptions of ourselves, loyalties to others, and the like. Pragmatists would add that much mundane action flows from a combination of habit and creativity rather than formal calculation of costs and benefits.

But my concern here is larger. What is involved in being deliberative and purposive about extended stretches of time? How do we lay out the guideposts of a life plan? And what is involved in acting deliberatively and purposively in carrying out one’s life plan or other medium- and long-term goals?

Here I want to look more closely than usual at what is involved in reflecting on one’s purposes and values, formulating a plan for the medium or long term, and acting in the short term in ways that further the big plan. My topic is “rationality in action”, but I want to pay attention to the issues associated with large, extended purposes — not bounded decisions like buying a house, making a financial investment, or choosing a college. I’m thinking of larger subjects for deliberation — for example, conquering all of Europe (Napoleon), leading the United States through a war for the Union ( Lincoln), or becoming a committed and active anti-Nazi (Bonhoeffer).

The scale I’m focusing on here corresponds to questions like these:

  • How did Napoleon deliberate about his ambitions in 1789? How did he carry out his thoughts, goals, and plans?
  • How did Abraham Lincoln think about slavery and the Union in 1861? How did his conduct of politics and war take shape in relation to his long term goals?
  • How did Richard Rorty plan his career in the early years? How did his choices reflect those plans? (Neil Gross considers this question in Richard Rorty: The Making of an American Philosopher; link.)
  • How did Dietrich Bonhoeffer deliberate about the choices in front of him in Germany in 1933? How did he decide to become an engaged anti-Nazi, at the eventual cost of his life?

What these examples have in common is large temporal scope; substantial uncertainties about the future; and extensive intertwining of moral and political values with more immediate concerns of self-interest, prudence, and desire. Moreover, the act of formulating plans on this scale and living them out is formative: we become different persons through these efforts.

The intriguing question for me at the moment is the issue of rational deliberation: to what extent and through what processes can individuals engage in a rational process in thinking through their decisions and plans at this level? Is it an expectation of rationality that an individual will have composed nested sets of plans and objectives, from the most global to the intermediate to the local?

Or instead, does a person’s journey through large events take its shape in a more stochastic way: opportunities, short term decisions, chance involvements, and some ongoing efforts to make sense of it all in the form of a developing narrative? Here we might say that life is not planned, but rather built like Neurath’s raft with materials at hand; and that rationality and deliberation come in only at a more local scale.

Here is a simple way of characterizing purposive action over a long and complex period. The actor has certain guiding goals he or she is trying to advance. It is possible to reflect upon these goals in depth and to consider their compatibility with other important considerations. This might be called “goal deliberation”. These goals and values serve as the guiding landmarks for the journey — “keep moving towards the tallest mountain on the horizon”. The actor surveys the medium-term environment for actions that are available to him or her, and the changes in the environment that may be looming in that period. And he or she composes a plan for these circumstances– “attempt to keep moderate Southern leaders from supporting cecession”. This is the stage of formulation of mid-range strategies and tactics, designed to move the overall purposes forward. Finally, like Odysseus, the actor seizes unforeseen opportunities of the moment in ways that appear to advance the cause even lacking a blueprint for how to proceed.

We might describe this process as one that involves local action-rationality guided by medium term strategies and oriented towards long term objectives. Rationality comes into the story at several points: assessing cause and effect, weighing the importance of various long term goals, deliberating across conflicting goals and values, working out the consequences of one scenario or another, etc.

As biologists from Darwin to Dawkins have recognized, the process of species evolution through natural selection is inherently myopic. Long term intelligent action is not so, in that it is possible for intelligent actors to consider distant solutions that are potentially achievable through orchestrated series of actions — plans and strategies. But in order to achieve the benefits of intelligent longterm action, it is necessary to be intelligent at every stage — formulate good and appropriate distant goals, carefully assess the terrain of action to determine as well as possible what pathways exist to move toward those goals, and act in the moment in ways that are both intelligent solutions to immediate opportunities and obstacles, and have the discipline to forego short term gain in order to stay on the path to the long term goal. But, paradoxically, it may be possible to be locally rational at every step and yet globally irrational, in the sense that the series of rational choices lead to an outcome widely divergent from the overriding goals one has selected.

I’ve invoked a number of different ideas here, all contributing to the notion of rational action over an extended time: deliberation, purposiveness, reflection, calculation of consequences, intelligent problem solving, and rational choice among discrete alternatives. What is interesting to me is that each these activities is plainly relevant to the task of “rational action”; and yet none reduces to the other. In particular, rational choice theory cannot be construed as a general and complete answer to the question, “what is involved in acting rationally over the long term?”.

Michael Bratman is the philosopher who has thought about these issues the most deeply; Intention, Plans, and Practical Reason. Manuel Vargas and Gideon Yaffe’s recent festschrift on Bratman’s work, Rational and Social Agency: The Philosophy of Michael Bratman, is also a useful contribution on the subject. Sarah Paul provides a nice review of Rational and Social Agency here.

Elitism?

There are a variety of ways of valorizing individuals and institutions in our society. We can value contribution and productivity; effectiveness; talent and merit; honesty and integrity; and “elite status”. Just watch the credits for Masterpiece Theater, including the promotions for a luxury cruise line and a luxury fashion house, and you will get a pretty good feel for the final category of value mentioned here, elite status. These promotions are clearly aimed at selling the product by selling the marks of elite standing with which they associate themselves. “If you too want to count yourselves among the elite, buy our clothes and travel on our cruise ships.”

Many individuals seem to be motivated by the desire to be perceived as being exceptional, high-status, and, well, elite. This has a connotation of wealth and power, but it also connotes other forms of access and privilege in society — able to gain the ear of elected officials, able to get a corner table at Elaine’s, able to gain membership in exclusive clubs and organizations. So what is “elite”?

To start, “elite” is a social characteristic of meaning attributed to individuals by other individuals. And pretty clearly, it is a socially engineered characteristic. It is the product of specific social actions and institutional arrangements. The fact of a group of families possessing concentrated wealth and power doesn’t automatically create an “elite” in society; rather, features of these individuals and families need to be marketed to the public in ways that lead others to recognize, admire, and respect them. Hierarchy needs to be cultivated.

But “elite” also applies to institutions and practices. Institutions can be perceived as being elite in and of themselves; and they can be perceived as the kinds of places where wannabes can gain the marks of the style and membership that will permit them too to be classified as “elite”. Private schools in New York and Philadelphia compete for both forms of elite status. The New York Yacht Club is elite; the Brooklyn Bowling League is non-elite. Princeton University is elite; LaGuardia Community College is non-elite. Medical school is elite; cosmetology school is non-elite. And, like the cruise line and the fashion house mentioned above, the elite status of the institutions is something that is deliberately cultivated and marketed. Princeton, Harvard, Johns Hopkins, and Berkeley are all very concerned about maintaining their elite status and reputation.

Status and privilege are social products; so it is an important task for sociology to decode their workings in contemporary society.

Pierre Bourdieu’s theorizing of various forms of social and cultural capital is directly relevant here. Bourdieu is particularly astute in tracing the markings and features of various kinds of privilege in French society, and the workings of the institutions that reproduce those features. Having elite status is a very tangible form of power and influence, independent from the personal qualities of talent, education, and experience that the individual may possess. Bourdieu traces how this mechanism works in France in The State Nobility: Elite Schools in the Field of Power. The markers of elite status — school, manners, dress, clubs, friendship circles — are forms of social capital that greatly contribute to the influence and power of the young people who are introduced into these practices. Here is a brief statement of Bourdieu’s approach:

One cannot get an accurate picture of the educational institution without completely transforming the image it manages to project of itself through the logic of its operation or, more precisely, through the symbolic violence it commits insofar as it is able to impose the misrecognition of its true logic upon all those who participate in it. Where we are used to seeing a rational educational enterprise, sanctioning the acquisition of multiple specialized competences through certificates of technical qualification, we must also read between the lines to see an authority of consecration that, through the reproduction of the technical competences required by the technical division of labor, plays an ever-increasing role in the reproduction of social competences, that is to say, legally recognized capacities for exercising power, which are absolutely essential if the social division of labor is to endure. (116)

Bourdieu uses the language of “consecration” — the quasi-religious anointment of young men and women into the ranks of the elite holders of power in twentieth-century France.

The processes of social separation that Bourdieu describes for France seem to have close counterparts in North America as well. Elizabeth Armstrong and Laura Hamilton, Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality and Shamus Rahman Khan, Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul’s School offer sociological studies of how very different educational institutions work to create the distinction between elite and non-elite. Armstrong and Hamilton study a mid-rank Midwestern research university, and Khan studies the St. Paul’s School, an ultra-elite boarding school in New England. Armstrong and Hamilton’s central finding is that the institution they study embodies institutional arrangements and practices that “track” students into outcomes that are closely correlated with the socioeconomic status of their families. Students from affluent families have a high likelihood of attaining degrees and future opportunities that support their own affluent careers upon graduation, whereas students from mid- and low-socioeconomic status families are led into educational pathways that result in lower rates of completion, less marketable degrees, and less career success. Here is the diagram they provide describing the flow of their argument:

What they mean by “class projects” is a bundle of activities and educational goals that characterize different groups of students. They find three large class projects at work among the women students whom they study: reproduction via social closure; mobility; and reproduction via achievement (table I.1). And they find that the institutional arrangements of the university and the organizational imperatives that embody these arrangements work fairly well to convey different socioeconomic groups onto different outcomes. The pathways that correspond to these projects include the party pathway, the mobility pathway, and the professional pathway; and they find that the class resources and assumptions of the young women they study have a powerful impact on the choices they make across these various pathways.

Khan’s reading of St. Paul’s School emphasizes a different set of processes, at a more elevated level of the American upper crust. And he uncovers an important feature of the past fifty years: the elitist institutions have become simultaneously more diverse and more inegalitarian. It is what he calls a democratic conundrum:

All of this is to say that the ‘new’ inequality is the democratization of inequality. We might call it democratic inequality. The aristocratic marks of class, exclusion, and inheritance have been rejected; the democratic embrace of individuals having their own fair shake is nearly complete. (conclusion)

The fundamental impact of this institution, Khan believes, is to increase the concentration of wealth and power in America, even as a certain number of non-traditional candidates are incorporated.

And so my optimism is heavily tempered. If our economic trends continue, if the spoils produced by the many are increasingly claimed by the few, then the transformations among the elite may be durable. That is, we may have a diverse elite class. And this I imagine will no doubt be trotted out by the elite to suggest that ours is an open society where one can get a fair shake. But diversity does not mean mobility and it certainly does not mean equality. Ours is a more diverse elite within a more unequal world. The result of our democratic inequality is that the production of privilege will continue to reproduce inequality while implying that ours is a just world; the weapons of the weak are removed, and the blame for inequality is placed on the shoulders of those whom our democratic promise has failed. (Conclusion)

These are important features of the contemporary social world. But they raise an important parochial question as well: can public universities truly serve the democratizing role that is so deeply important in our highly unequal world today? Or is there a creeping elitism across many top public universities that undercuts the democratizing effects they ought to have for people on the bottom three or four quintiles of the population?

A more inclusive university

The challenge of creating a truly inclusive university is a difficult one. Inclusiveness is more than diversity. It is an institution and culture in which people from all social groups — race, nationality, gender, sexuality, religion, ethnicity — are fully embraced and respected. It is an environment in which every individual is afforded the opportunity and space to do his or her best work, unimpeded by stereotype or discriminatory arrangements. But achieving this harmonious and democratic outcome is challenging, for a variety of reasons. Most important among these is the difficulty of overcoming limitations of perspective from the various groups, including especially the majority group. Practices that seem innocuous and neutral to majority group members are often experienced as demeaning and limiting by non-majority group members — what some students now refer to as “micro-aggressions”.

The inter-university consortium know as the Future of Minority Studies continues to do good work in attempting to make progress on improving the inclusiveness of universities, and the most recent contribution to its publication series is particularly salient. This is The Truly Diverse Faculty: New Dialogues in American Higher Education, a collection of essays by highly talented young faculty of color who write honestly about their experiences at a range of universities around the United States. Edited by Stephanie Fryberg and Ernesto Javier Martinez, the volume goes beyond the rhetoric of diversity that is present at most American universities to probe honestly the challenges that exist for faculty of color. The volume contains primary articles from talented younger scholars like Victoria Plaut, Denise Sekaquaptewa, and Tiffany Willoughby-Herard, as well as comments by more senior scholars such as Chandra Mohanty, Nancy Cantor, and Michael Hames-Garcia.

A central challenge for the goal of a truly inclusive and democratic university is the patterns of race and privilege that are built into our institutions through their history. Most universities in the United States are overwhelmingly “white” – their faculty and their cultures have been constructed through a history that made it difficult to impossible to genuinely incorporate racial diversity. And this appears to be more true the further one ascends into the ranks of the elite research universities. These observations are less true of several segments of American higher education: the historically black universities and colleges, the non-flagship public universities, and the community colleges in many parts of the country. But for the elite colleges and universities in the US, the demography, history, and culture all tip sharply towards what Phillip Goff calls “Whiteness” in his contribution to the volume. (One could say much the same about the gender composition and culture of many universities and departments.)

This fact presents a major challenge to people who want to see universities change fundamentally with regard to race and culture. We want the twenty-first century university to be genuinely multi-racial, multi-cultural, multi-religious, and multi-ethnic. We want these “multi’s” because our country itself is multicultural, and because we have a national history that has not done a good job of creating an environment of equality and democracy across racial and cultural lines. And we want the universities to change, because they are key locations where the values and skills of our future leaders will be formed. So if universities do not succeed in transforming themselves around the realities of race and difference, we cannot expect the larger society to succeed in this difficult challenge either.

This means that university faculty and administrators need a much better understanding of the scope of the problem. Why is it that the current American university is often such a negative environment for many faculty of color – especially junior faculty? What concrete and practical steps can we take to get from where we are to where we want to be – from an environment defined by majority values, culture, and power, to one that is genuinely and democratically framed by the multi-cultural reality of our society? How can we make the transition that is required that will lead us to the university of the future, in which our department meetings, our tenure processes, and our university-wide intellectual communities are genuinely respectful of racial, ethnic, and gender differences?

The essays in this volume are a valuable contribution to making the university better. One thing that we have learned through a body of multicultural research over the past several decades, is how important it is to get past “perspective blindness.” When majority faculty members or administrators think about race in the university, they generally have only a very limited understanding of the concrete situations that faculty and students of color face. So the concrete specificity of the articles in this volume provides a valuable learning opportunity for the majority members of any university. There is valuable pedagogical work going on in many universities that is designed to make more apparent the hidden biases and practices that are still too common. For example, the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching at the University of Michigan has developed many tools for highlighting the situations of race and gender that can arise in the classroom that majority faculty members are simply unlikely to see without some help (link). This volume is enormously valuable in this respect as well. Reading the collection helps department chairs, deans, and presidents have a better idea, in concrete terms, of what it means to recognize that faculty of color face an environment that imposes greater burdens and greater stresses, and that these burdens and stresses make their research and teaching agendas all the more difficult to achieve. So the university needs to arrive at concrete strategies for counteracting these negative effects.

(FYI — some of this post is adapted from my own short contribution to the volume in my comments on Phillip Goff’s excellent piece.)

Underinvesting in the public good

There are quite a few investments in social programs that would have spectacular return on investment, but that in fact remain unfunded or underfunded. I am thinking here of things like broadened preschool programs, enhanced dropout prevention programs, regional economic development efforts, and prison re-entry programs. Why are these spectacular opportunities so dramatically under-exploited in the United States and other nations?

One line of answer derives from a public choice perspective: the gains that follow from the investment represent public goods, and public goods are typically under-provided. But that doesn’t really answer the question, because it is governments that are underinvesting, not uncoordinated groups of independent agents. And governments are supposed to make investments to promote the public good.

Another plausible answer is that the citizens who are primarily served by most of the examples provided above are poor and disenfranchised; so the fact that they would benefit from the program doesn’t motivate the politically powerful to adopt the policy.

There is also a powerful influence of political ideology at work here. Conservative ideas about what a good society looks like, how social change occurs, and the role of government all militate against substantial public investment in programs and activities like those mentioned above. These conservative political beliefs are undergirded by a white-hot activism against taxes that makes it all but impossible to gain support in legislative bodies for programs like these — no matter what the return on investment is.

Failure to achieve these kinds of social gains through public investment might seem like a very basic element of injustice within our society. But it also looks like strong evidence of system failure: the political and economic system fail to bring about as much public good as is possible in the circumstances. The polity is stuck somewhere on the low shoulders of the climb towards maximum public benefit for minimum overall investment. It is analogous to the situation in private economic space where there are substantial obstacles to the flow of investment, leaving substantial possible sources of gain untapped. It is s situation of massive collective inefficiency, quite the contrary of Adam Smith’s view of the happy outcomes of the hidden hand and the market mechanism.

This last point brings us back to the public goods aspect of the problem. A legislature that designs a policy or program aimed at capturing the gains mentioned here may succeed in its goal and yet find that the gains accrue to someone else — the public at large or another political party. The gains are separated from the investment, leaving the investment entity with no rational incentive to make the investment after all.

Some policy leaders have recognized this systemic problem and have turned to an innovative possible solution, social impact bonds (link). Here is how the Center for American Progress explains this idea.

A social impact bond, or SIB, is an innovative financial tool that enables government agencies to pay for programs that deliver results. In a SIB agreement, the government sets a specific, measurable outcome that it wants achieved in a population and promises to pay an external organization—sometimes called an intermediary—if and only if the organization accomplishes the outcome. SIBs are one example of what the Obama administration calls “Pay for Success” financing. (link)

Essentially the idea is to try to find a way of privatizing the public gains in question, so that private investors have an incentive to bring them about.

This is an interesting idea, but it doesn’t really solve the fundamental problem: society’s inability to make rational investment in its own wellbeing. It seems more like a way of shifting risks of program success or failure from the state agency to the private entity. Here is a McKinsey discussion of the concept (link), and here is a more skeptical piece in the Economist (link).

Public attitudes towards market fundamentalism

Several recent posts have raised the question, what would be needed to move US public policy towards a more equitable treatment of the bottom 75% of American society? Conditions for much of this super-majority of society have gradually declined in the past several decades, and public programs designed to ameliorate conditions of health, education, nutrition, and housing have come under severe attack from the right. Why have public policies turned away from active efforts towards improving the life conditions of the lower portion of society? And can we learn anything useful from international comparisons of attitudes on social welfare policies?

One key factor in understanding the politics of inequality in a country is the distribution of social attitudes across the population. How do Americans feel about government policies aimed at helping the less-well-off? How do we feel about the “social contract” that we have with each other over an economically, racially, and regionally diverse country?

The Pew Research Center has done a lot of research on this family of questions, and some recent results are summarized by Bruce Stokes in “Public Attitudes Toward the Next Social Contract” (link). Here are a few basic facts. The US spends a substantially lower share of its GDP on social expenditures than other OECD countries (19.4% versus 28.2% (Sweden) and 26.2% (Germany) (1)). And, as is now well familiar, wealth and income are highly unequal in the. US — the top 1% gained 38.3% of all wealth growth in the US in the period 1983-2010, and the bottom 60% lost ground in wealth ownership (2).

So how do Americans feel about a social safety net? Consider this basic statement: “It is the responsibility of the government to take care for those who can’t take care of themselves.” A Pew Global Attitudes survey in 2007 found that 56% of Swedes and 52% of Germans strongly agreed with this statement, whereas only 28% of Americans as a whole strongly agreed with the statement (6). Moreover, this is one area where American society is most polarized. The percentage of people who identify as Republicans who agreed with a somewhat broader statement in 1987 was 62%; in 2012 this percentage had dropped to 36%. By contrast, Democrats have remained fairly constant in their support for this statement (75%).

Stokes closes with this summary statement:

Americans do have a social contract with each other and with their government. But this bond is currently under great strain. Americans’ conflicting values and goals and deep partisan divisions over the specifics of the social safety net, along with worries about how to pay for it, suggest that the tensions surrounding the social contract will continue for some time. (13)

So how have American public attitudes about the key elements of the social safety net changed in the past fifteen years? Support has both polarized and declined. Here is a graph from the Pew study:

 

Now contrast this situation with that of Sweden. Stefan Svallfors provides an analysis of social attitudes in Sweden between 1981 and 2010, and he finds high and unwavering support for Sweden’s extensive welfare state (link). His work is based on analysis of the Swedish Welfare State Surveys, replicated five times since 1981. Here is the most dramatic summary table.

Support for additional public spending on health care increased from 45% to 66% in 2010. Increased support for the elderly went from 30% who favored additional public support to 70%. Support for more spending on schooling increased from 26% to 60%. And support for increasing social assistance went from 16% to 22%. What this documents is strong and rising support for using public moneys to provide public benefits to all members of Swedish society, poor and rich alike. And that in turn demonstrates a very strong commitment to the social contract. Here is Svallfors’ conclusion:

In conclusion, what may be said about the state of Swedish attitudes towards the welfare state? First, there are absolutely no signs of any decreasing public support for welfare policies. Overall, there is a large degree of stability in attitudes, and where change is registered, it tends to go in the direction of increasing support. More people state their willingness to pay higher taxes for welfare policy purposes; more people want collective financing of welfare policies; and fewer people perceive extensive welfare abuse in 2010 than was the case in previous surveys. Class patterns change so that the salaried and the self-employed become more similar to workers in their attitudes. (819)

Finally, here is a summary of recent research on Swedish attitudes towards immigrants (link).

Here too the bonds of social solidarity remain strong. The summary finding is that Swedes strongly support their country’s rising ethnic diversity. 74% of Swedes expressed a positive attitude towards rising ethnic diversity in 2013, up six points from the prior year. Unlike other European countries where rising nationalist parties are cultivating an ugly anti-immigrant politics, Swedish society is strongly supportive of the increases in diversity that it is witnessing.

These are striking data for both societies. People in the United States show significantly lower (and declining) support for the social safety net than in many other countries, while the Nordic populations have sustained and even increased their high level of support for these public programs. The difficult political question is this: what sorts of things need to happen in order to inflect American attitudes and values in a more positive direction when it comes to empathy and social solidarity?

%d bloggers like this: