I learned long ago that comparison is the best basis for judgements about people, societies, and historical periods. The human race has been measuring itself against ideals at least since Plato, but such measurements are actually quite arbitrary since they take no account of what is possible in real life and what is not. On the other hand, if, confronted with 100 adults, one notes four of them standing higher than the others, one can safely identify them as "tall." A batting average of .350 is outstanding because so few hitters manage to achieve it. Economic growth, unemployment, and even justice can all measure the same way.
And thus, I decided long ago, comparative history is by far the best way to make judgments about societies. One may compare in two dimensions, across space or across time. In Politics and War I did both. Now comparisons are on my mind because I am buried deeply in the early 1940s and, to a lesser extent, in the decades that proceeded them--and certain things are becoming increasingly clear to me. The United States and much of the world are suffering from a terrible crisis of authority, both because of an increasing emphasis on individual self-expression, and because the intellectual basis of authority has been destroyed. And that, I am convinced, is why we are proving largely unable to deal with the fourth great crisis in our national life.
The first half of the twentieth century, turbulent though it was, remains the great age of rationalism in American politics. Two centuries of the Enlightenment had convinced mankind that the application of science and reason could improve their lot. Americans believed in their democracy as a product of this ethos, and beginning around 1900, they began to accept the idea that reason and science could solve social problems as well. They did not, of course, go so far as Soviet Communists or German National Socialists, who claimed to use science and reason totally to transform society, economy, the gene pool, and human nature itself, but they believed in planning. Franklin Roosevelt, himself a farmer, first became interested in agricultural planning designed to match crops with the most suitable soil. Then he adopted the cause of public power, the planned development of energy resources (mainly hydroelectric power) so as to provide this new necessity at reasonable prices. And then, after the Depression struck, he adopted the idea that the nation needed economic planning to assure an essential level of prosperity. As I am discovering, his response to the Second World War also drew on careful calculations, and by 1943 his Administration was busily planning the postwar world that was to follow, including the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.
Today the idea that reason and science can improve our lives survives, in a much less inspiring form, in graduate institutions like the John F. Kennedy School of Government, which do indeed provide a good deal of the personnel in Democratic institutions. But it is being increasingly driven out of our political life--and for this, there are at least three major reasons.
The first (not necessarily in order of importance) is the renaissance and triumph of free-market economics not only in the business and financial communities, but in the Academy. As a college student in the mid-1960s I learned that the government's role was necessary to keep employment high and prices stable. For several decades now students have learned that government intervention does nothing but harm and markets regulate themselves. We now have all the evidence we need to disprove this, but it looks to me as if the economics profession has recovered from a momentary panic in 2008-9. The idea that government does nothing but economic harm by spending too much money is increasingly the conventional wisdom, and the Republicans are scoring extraordinary successes (the scope of which will only become apparent in the next couple of years) in eliminating much of the domestic role the federal government, using the fiscal crisis as an excuse.
The second is the destruction of the rationalist ideal in the humanities. English and history departments no longer acknowledge the existence of objective reality. Language, many professors will now tell you, cannot mirror objective reality, only the feelings and interests of individual speakers, or of their gender, race, or class. In short, they have destroyed the Tower of Babel that had been built up over the past two centuries, enabling us to use a common language to speak of the common good. I don't suppose many professors who have embraced the new orthodoxy read this blog, but I can imagine them right now arguing that the rationalism which I revere simply enforced the interests of white males. But it didn't. The abolition of slavery and the advent of women's suffrage were both supported on rationalist grounds. Indeed, it was the use of language that did not acknowledge class, race or gender in the U.S. Constitution that allowed the excluded to claim their rights.
Thus, conservatives, relying on the ideal of the free market, argue that any "common good" can only come from the relentless pursuit of individual, private goods, while academic liberals argue that the very idea of the common good is an illusion. It's no wonder under the circumstances that we now accept 9.5% unemployment, almost unprecedented inequality of wealth, and the relentless movement of jobs overseas as normal. What basis is left on which to criticize these decisions? And now the control of American institutions is passing into the hands of Generation X, which with rare exceptions has never had any faith in institutions, since they grew up in an era of failing institutions, especially, in many cases, the institution most important to them, their families.
It is a great irony that participation at the highest levels of our society has been opened up to women, minorities, and gays during the same period in which the idea of "common good" has gone into eclipse. And while these changes certainly mean greater justice for minority individuals, there is not much evidence that they mean more justice for all. Last week I watched a Frontline documentary, now almost a year old, Obama's Deal, the passage of the health care bill. I learned a great deal, and I was introduced to Janet Ignagny, a Boomer who surely must be one of the ten most powerful women in America. I had not yet heard of her and I doubt many of you had either, but she is the President of the trade association of American health insurance companies, and she played a key role in the design of the health care bill, insisting that it had to include a mandate that would force every American to buy health insurance. (Candidate Barack Obama had opposed such a measure, and it is that measure that may result in the bill being declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.) She essentially sold the support of the industry in exchange for various safeguards for its interests--just as anyone in her position, man or woman, black or white, gay or straight, would have done. Women frequently argued in the 1970s that the ascendance of women to leading positions would humanize our institutions and make them run according to different, more feminine values. The evidence is now overwhelming that that will not happen. Three or our last four Secretaries of State have been women, but none of them has demonstrated any inclinations towards pacifism--Colin Powell, indeed, was more restrained in his attitude towards force than any of them.
We must take our history as it comes. To one brought up on progress in the 1950s and early 1960s the last 45 years have been a great disappointment, but they obviously represented a necessary stage. Eventually the problems of the free market will demand another serious attack. Eventually rewards in our society will be sufficiently widely distributed among genders and races so that we can once again focus on peoples' performance in office, rather than their genitalia or skin color. I hope I can be around at least to see the beginning of these changes.