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What’s right vs. what works
We all like to think we do the right thing. Striving for the right is an admirable human quality.
We run into problems, though, as soon as we meet people who disagree with us on what the right consists of.
Most people consider freedom a good thing, but most also value some degree of order, which can require curtailing freedom. Where should the line be drawn? The international counterpart of freedom is sovereign self-determination, a concept that receives general endorsement these days. But should a country blithely allow its next-door neighbor, acting on the principle of self-determination, to form a military alliance with the first country’s enemy? We value human life, but we put human lives in danger each time we get behind the wheel of a car; should we restrict ourselves to walking?
As these examples show, principles of right don’t exist in a vacuum. They typically stand in tension with other principles of right. Sincere people can differ on where the balance ought to lie. Policies based on claims of being right will be opposed by claims on an opposite right. Advocates of a woman’s right to control her reproduction are countered by advocates of the rights of fetuses. A child should have a right to an education, but that child’s parents ought to have a right to weigh in on what the education entails.
As long as the arguments are based on claims of right, they are likely to remain at loggerheads. To yield is to surrender principle, and that’s not right.
Another way of approaching issues is to ask what works. Most people prefer peace to war, and many think the way to promote peace is to stop preparing for war. Without weapons, humans won’t fight; hence disarmament is the optimal policy. But disarmament works only if everyone disarms. Otherwise the disarmers tempt the still-armed to attack. The result might actually be more war. So, paradoxically, the path to peace might well run through a robust defense industry.
The best approach is experimental. Disarm carefully and vigilantly, if disarm you must. Insist on reciprocal reductions and other guarantees of good faith. And be prepared to reverse course if things don’t work out.
Public education has been a great democratizing force in American life, transforming education from the preserve of the wealthy to an entitlement for all children. But to work it has to provide a good education, and if public schools consistently fail to do that, alternatives—charter schools, vouchers—ought to be tried.
Democracy itself should be tested and remedied where wanting. The fifty-one percent rule is not part of the fabric of the cosmos; simple majorities can’t claim to rule by divine right or natural law. Democracy’s claim is that it works—at least better than the alternatives.
And nearly all democracies concede that democracy doesn’t always work. Most democracies have something akin to a bill of rights, specifying certain realms where majority rule does not apply. The American Bill of Rights, for example, prohibits government from tampering with freedom of religion.
Freedom of religion is arguably a natural right, one that does and should transcend human law. But other protections in the Bill of Rights are operative rather than essential. The justification for freedom of speech is not that God gave us all vocal cords; it is that unfettered debate is the surest method of approaching truth. Juries don't always deliver fairer verdicts than judges, but their verdicts tend to be seen as more legitimate.
America used to entrust control of the money supply to Congress and the president, but after a succession of financial panics in the 19th century, Congress and the president agreed to hand monetary policy off to the independent—which is to say undemocratically unelected—Federal Reserve.
William James, a founder of the philosophical school of pragmatism, in the early 20th century distinguished between the "tender-minded" and the "tough-minded." The former were guided by principle, the latter by experience. James argued that society needed both types—indeed, that it was the rare individual who was all one or all the other. "Few of us are tenderfoot Bostonians pure and simple, and few are typical Rocky Mountain toughs," he said. "Most of us have a hankering for the good things on both sides of the line. Facts are good, of course—give us lots of facts. Principles are good—give us plenty of principles."*
Just as individuals benefited from having a foot in both camps, so did societies. James proposed a practical kind of idealism—what he and his philosopher friends called pragmatism.
The idea caught on and informed the most important political movement of James's era: progressivism. The progressives had principles: they believed devoutly in democracy, science and education. But they made their arguments in terms of what worked. The same people who wanted to expand democracy by means of the direct election of senators also voted to contract democracy by creating the Federal Reserve.
Those who call themselves progressives today have borrowed the name but often ignored the insistence on testing principles against real-world experience. Those who most oppose the progressives are equally principled, just in the opposite direction.
The battle between the principles has often led to deadlock. Deadlock suits those who prefer controversy to solutions, but for the rest of us a resort to field-testing—trying things and seeing what works—would be a relief and an improvement. Where Boston meets the Rocky Mountains can be productive territory.
* “The Present Dilemma in Philosophy,” in William James: Writings, 1902-1910 (Library of America, 1987), pp. 491-92.