What a Fine Mess We're In
The title quote from Laurel & Hardy here refers to public policies. Most of us are interested in our public policies; they affect how we relate to each other, how various government agencies relate to us, and we talk, often complain, about them. The question here is how national domestic policies come to be what they are and why we have had some unease about them in recent years. Public policies are a reflection of public philosophies, so asking this question introduces the notion of public philosophy. Philosophies are not just arcane academic endeavors. They filter down from formal philosophies in academia and become understood in the populace as 'common knowledge,' a cultural world-view of how the world simply works. This is public philosophy and it determines how we go about living, governing ourselves, and solving problems. Public philosophies are widely held, but are seldom universally held in common and the result can be a conflict in how we understand the world. Almost since our beginning as a collection of colonies, Americans have suffered a civil conflict between two fundamentally different public philosophies: urban idealism and agrarian pragmatism (See: Lind, M.: 1999, Civil War by Other Means, Foreign Affairs, Vol. 78, No.5, p123). These public philosophies have been defined on geographic regions and the terms 'urban' and 'agrarian' reflect those regions. It is particularly interesting that these regions have been remarkably consistent to the present day approximated every four years as the red (pragmatism) and blue (idealism) election maps. I want to review the fundamental ideas and a little history of urban idealism and agrarian pragmatism in sections I and II respectively, and then compare them in section III, and finally discuss our experience with recent public policies in section IV.
I. Urban Idealism.
The public philosophy of urban idealism is the lay interpretation of the formal philosophy we know as rationalism. Rationalism was introduced to the world in the 17th century by French philosopher Rene Descartes. Rationalism has had an enormous impact on us; it flowered in the age of Enlightenment and its principles laid the foundation for all of the sciences and much of modern philosophy in western civilization. The rationalist perspective is that the world is fundamentally composed of mind and matter, distinct and separate. This was called dualism. The fundamental principle of rationalism states that the world has an underlying structure that is logically understandable by reason and deduction independently of experience. This combines with the principle of dualism to conclude that we are essentially spectators of the world; that is, we relate to it from the standpoint of detached objectivity by reason and deduction. Descartes further asserted that occult explanations of mystifying phenomena were rejected in favor of an eventual objective analysis. This paradigm was a revolution. Until Descartes introduced this revolutionary idea, the purpose of science was to explain the goodness of God according to Church authority and doctrine. Rationalism divorced science from authority of the Church. As we might expect, the Church objected to rationalism and for a while banned Descartes and his ideas.
Not long after Descartes, German philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Leibniz added the notion that the essence of things -- that is, what it is that makes them what they are -- embodies all that is necessary for their identity past, present, and future, is self-subsistent, and independent of all else. There is a lot more to Leibniz's theory than this, but for our purposes here the important part is that all things in the world are equally independent and they relate to all other things as independent entities.
We can safely say that rationalism permeated Western civilization and is the foundation of its overwhelming intellectual achievements. The fundamental ideas of rationalism that led science to its achievements also influenced political philosophies. For example, principles of identity and independent entities are reflected in our Constitution as principles of liberty, human dignity, and freedom from tyranny. Science, especially physics, flourished in the 18th and 19th century and the idea that physics should be the model of all human knowledge began to emerge in learned society. This idea led to the notion of a science of people and produced modern psychology and sociology. Applying rationalism to social affairs took root and eventually evolved into a public philosophy in the early 20th century as modern urban idealism founding domestic policies based on objective analysis.
When applied to social affairs, urban idealism described societies consistent with the principles of rationalism as logically understandable by reason and deduction independently of experience. It followed, then, that public policies developed from urban idealism were characterized by the belief that social problems were inherently understandable and solvable by design and control. It was a natural progression, then, for urban idealists to advance to the notion of social engineering, most recently during the last 50 years. This approach assumed the status of 'unassailable truth' because its foundation was ingrained in the minds of government bureaucracies and academia as a well-established public philosophy. The strength of urban idealism is that programs implementing public policies produced by it are linear, comprehensible, and easily implemented by bureaucracies. The weaknesses of urban idealism are those same characteristics, because people are not linear, not always logical and objective, and things can easily run amok when implementing someone's ideas of what people ought to do.
II. Agrarian pragmatism.
Agrarian pragmatism is altogether different from urban idealism. Whereas urban idealism teaches that we are objective spectators of the world, agrarian pragmatism teaches that we are embedded in the world. Agrarian pragmatism is more nearly an explanation of how we understand our place in the world based on our purposeful experience in it. It was an unarticulated philosophy in the 18th century, yet predominated as public philosophy outside the halls of academia. It was formerly, and independently, developed by Martin Heidegger in 1931 as hermeneutic phenomenology. (See: Dreyfus, H. L.: 1995, Being-in-the-World: A Commentary on Heidegger's Being and Time, The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA. Heidegger's philosophy will be referred to here as agrarian pragmatism.) Heidegger accepted the success of the physical sciences, but rejected the notion that rationalism could account for the complete reality of conscious, human experience. In other words, he believed that there was more to reality than understanding the world by reason and deduction independently of experience. He rejected the idea that consciousness was describable by any explicit, objective theory. Instead, he maintained that it was simply the way we live embedded in the world.
We must come to grips with the fact that agrarian pragmatism is hermeneutic in nature. This means that it is convoluted, whereas rationalism is a linear approach to understanding things. Trying to understand something that is hermeneutic is like trying to understand music or biblical scriptures; you cannot study any part by itself; you have to look at everything in turn and together, back and forth, until you finally 'just see' it. Agrarian pragmatism does not describe people as embodying all that is necessary for their identity past, present and future, and independent of all else; nor are societies regarded as 'logically' understandable by reason and deduction independently of experience. Instead, people are regarded as interdependent conscious beings connected in relationships relying on judgment and experience to fulfill purposive ends coping with the world.
The principles of agrarian pragmatism are the framework for defining a conscious being:
(1) We share experience and our understanding of things;
(2) We live in communities founded on normative structures of behavior and language;
(3) We understand ourselves in terms of our experience of dwelling in the world, and
(4) The essence of consciousness is temporality; we exist in a mode of projecting from our past and where we are now to a future for the sake of what we care about.
Perhaps the two most important elements of these principles for this discussion are the notions of 'normative structures and 'care'. Taken all together, these principles define conscious life as acting with purpose for the sake of what, or whom, we care about, in ways prescribed by the normative structures of communities. The following paragraphs will show how this unfolds to explain how conscious beings are embedded in the world.
Normative structures are a background of practices that are intuitively understood by conscious beings as 'ways of living'. People are not born as conscious beings; they become conscious beings by dwelling in a community of normative structures; they are embedded in a complex web of 'ways of living' from birth. While some of these normative structures may be codified as rules taught in various ways to the newborn child, adolescent, and adult in families, churches, schools and universities, most are taught by simply dwelling in a community of things and people. The conscious being absorbs these ways of living to various degrees and they quite literally are the foundation of his self-understanding of who he is and what he wants to do. They are his understanding-of the functionality of things, understanding-how to do things, and an understanding-about what things are. Normative structures include notions of right and wrong, good and evil, charity, and family. They include the tools of sharing such as language, art, and style, and they convey a common heritage of history, traditions, and customs. Normative structure are also ways of living such as love, compassion, empathy, guilt, loyalty, respect, honor, and the roles of being men and women, children, wives and husbands, sisters and uncles. All of these normative structures and many more define what we care about, proper and improper ways of doing things, and good and bad things we might want to do. Taken as common understandings, they bind communities of people together in proportion to their strength and discipline as the cohesion of a community to provide guidance, nurturing, and support for coping with the world. In this way, normative structures define a culture.
The weakness of agrarian pragmatism is that it is messy. The policies developed from it are complex and do not fit easily into large centralized bureaucracies relying on algorithmic procedure. On the other hand, being more complex and relying more on local judgment and accountability, programs developed in policies derived from agrarian pragmatism are more flexible and not as susceptible to failure as policies developed from urban idealism.
III. Comparing urban idealism and agrarian pragmatism.
Urban idealism and agrarian pragmatism can be seen as complementary in America in at least one sense: The rationalist ideals codified in the Constitution defined the principles of independence and liberty for a democratic republic of a free people in a Judeo-Christian ethical heritage. Complementary to this, agrarian pragmatism describes how individuals cope with the world as a community of free and independent people. Taken together in a balance of separate domains, they combine in our Constitution to make "a more perfect Union" bound by the same moral principles that apply to free individuals. This is the freedom of America. Idealism worked well to establish the principles of the American experiment, but not so well in defining public policies. The idealistic principles of rationalism applied to the affairs of people were inconsistent with the pragmatic principles of a free people coping with the actual world. This is a fundamental distinction and explains why rationalism was a very successful foundation for principles of a republic of free people, but social programs developed from its derivative of modern urban idealism did not find the success its proponents had hoped for.
IV. Where are we now?
Crime is one example we can cite of how modern urban idealism has failed as a guide to domestic policy. By some measures, crime in America has lessened, but by other measures is more prevalent. In any case, crime is a symptom of things going wrong in a society. American society has become more disjoint and less cohesive in the last two, maybe three generations: measures of family unity are lower, illegitimate pregnancy is much more common, work ethic is diminished, and the ethic of achievement has diminished. Coincidentally, concerns for security to protect life and property have increased reflecting a state of crime. All of this reflects a weakening of the normative structures of communities. How does the controlling class of urban idealism account for this?
Crime is ultimately a moral issue. Crime may be punished by law, but the desire to commit crime is inhibited by guilt. Guilt is one of the fundamental anxieties of conscious beings; it is the fear of condemnation. (See: Tillich, Paul, 1952, The Courage To Be, Yale University Press, New Haven, Connecticut,.) Guilt never goes away. Punishment is imposed on an individual and comes to an end, but not so with guilt. Guilt is within you and comes from violating a personal sense of what is right, and wrong. You cannot design guilt into law; guilt reflects the discipline of normative structures. If you do something you know is wrong, you know you did it, and you know you are guilty whether punished or not. This sense of guilt depends on strong normative structures binding a community, and that is our problem: Urban idealism does not account for communities bound by normative structures. Without the discipline of generations of normative structures, crime is freed of guilt. The Idealist's solution to this dilemma has been deflection denying the connection and the need of another policy.
As we approach public 'national conversations' on social issues, perhaps we should reflect on policies grounded in modern urban idealism and make pragmatic assessments of results. We need to have public social policies that actually work, and that entails an intimate, philosophical connection to the public affected by them.