Discussion: (8 comments)
Comments are closed.
A public policy blog from AEI
Andy Smarick gave this as the opening lecture at the Values and Capitalism Summer Conference on June 15, 2017.
Thank you so much for having me here. It’s a real pleasure to get to talk to such a talented, curious group of young scholars.
I’m working with a number of colleagues on a multi-year initiative that we’re calling the “Human Dignity Project.” Our aim is to advance the often neglected but essential conviction that every single human has infinite value and limitless potential, and that it’s our job as fellow humans and citizens, as public leaders, as policymakers to enable others to live lives of happiness, of purpose, of contribution. As C.S. Lewis wrote, “Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.”
Now, a lot of this project’s work will focus on the needs of the disadvantaged, especially those who could really use a hand up at this moment — whether because they are living in poverty, suffering from addiction, out of work, in the criminal justice system, or something similar.
But I want to spend the next 20 minutes or so talking about a different way to think about advancing human dignity, namely: How do we approach social issues, economic issues, and public policy issues so a deep respect for human dignity is our default setting? That is, instead of listing some laws and regulations that might be changed, I want to suggest a philosophical approach, a kind of North Star.
It won’t provide an answer to every question and it will, actually, be quite lousy at addressing tactical issues — what’s the right tax rate for this or the right federal-guidance language for that. But I hope it gives you a way to think about many of the issues you’ll be learning about over the next few days, and maybe it’ll provide a framework for engaging with the big ideas of governing.
How do we approach social issues, economic issues, and public policy issues so a deep respect for human dignity is our default setting?
So my title for this little talk is “Fostering Dignity by Practicing Humility” or maybe “Dignity through Humility” for short. This is about engaging with others with the utmost respect because they may be right and we may be wrong. Believing deeply that other people are good and decent and smart and able — even when you disagree with them. It’s about believing that the people who came before us were also good and decent and smart and able — that the practices and institutions they passed down are generally wise and robust even if they seem antiquated.
It’s about believing that small communities can figure things out for themselves, that they can care for their members and solve tricky challenges — even if these groups look different than we look, have different practices than we have, and maybe even reach different conclusions than we’d reach. And maybe the most important part relates to governing — believing to our core that we must do everything we can, when we’re given the power of the state, to be just and charitable and prudent and modest when we are able to tax, to imprison, to compel, to limit, and to incentivize through the vast authority of the government.
Humility and human frailty
However, we need to be honest with ourselves on one very important point: It is extraordinarily difficult to practice humility in the realm of human affairs because of the great human challenge. To be blunt, humans are capable of terrible things.
History teaches us — frankly, history belabors the point — that we are prone to war, torture, terror, genocide, duplicity, greed, selfishness, jealousy, and more. We can cause misery for ourselves and for others. There is no way around that fact.
So much of the history of society and government is the story of varied civilizations and successive generations doing their utmost to figure out how to enable people to live peaceably, securely, and happily and with justice and prosperity despite our failings.
As though this weren’t difficult enough, America had the bright idea of prioritizing liberty — we believe people should largely be free to live as they choose. We even believe that liberty comes directly from our Creator.
So, here we are: We know that humans are liable to do terrible things but we are committed to the proposition that individual freedom is sacrosanct. Wow.
Or as James Comey might say: Lordy…
So how in the world do we manage?
Well, we have guidance. So much of the history of society and government is the story of varied civilizations and successive generations doing their utmost to figure out how to enable people to live peaceably, securely, and happily and with justice and prosperity despite our failings.
Greek myths cautioned about hamartia — our fatal flaws — hubris, jealously, lust, ambition. Shakespeare’s tragic characters — Macbeth, Romeo, Hamlet — updated and expanded those warnings. The famous concept of the “monomyth” — also known as the “Hero with 1,000 Faces” — is premised on the understanding that, regardless of time and location, we all — in the forms of Odysseus, Neo in The Matrix, King Arthur, Luke Skywalker, Katniss Everdeen, Simba — we all face the same set of very human challenges.
Thankfully, societies over the millennia have developed numerous tools to help us cope. We’re taught courage, self-restraint, etiquette, and grit thanks to our predecessors who smartly mapped the terrain around these eternal mines. A constellation of customs, institutions, and adages — marriage, charity, co-ops, fables, prayer, meditation, fraternal associations, volunteerism — help us routinize these virtues. Faith traditions, despite their explicit and differing spiritual motivations, offer similar shalls and shall nots designed to accomplish — beyond their heavenly aims — the worldly aim of capitalizing on our natural strengths and mitigating our weaknesses. Think of the explicit lessons of the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule; think of the implicit lessons of David and Goliath, of David and Bathsheba, of 40 days in the desert, of the fasting of Ramadan, of observing the Sabbath and keeping kosher. These help us navigate the worldly challenges we inevitably encounter.
America, I believe, has made a powerful contribution in our approach to governing and economics. AEI’s president Arthur Brooks has this wonderful line — that we should view all individuals as assets to prize and develop, not as liabilities that need to be managed. This is an outstanding glass-half-full understanding of the human-frailties problem I’ve been discussing.
It says, let’s appreciate human nature, not hide from it; but let’s see it as a wonderful opportunity. And that’s precisely what Adam Smith — the father of capitalism — and James Madison — the father of our Constitution — did.
It says, let’s appreciate human nature, not hide from it; but let’s see it as a wonderful opportunity. And that’s precisely what Adam Smith — the father of capitalism — and James Madison — the father of our Constitution — did. Their shared world-altering insight was that instead of treating humans’ likely behavior in the world of economics and governing as a danger, something that would need to be tightly controlled, let’s try to harness humans’ strengths and redirect their negative energy for mutual benefit.
So America arranged institutions such that potential liabilities become assets: greed, selfishness, profit-seeking, hunger for power, our penchant for “faction” as Madison called it — these can be set against one another to create the healthy tension in separation of powers and federalism; to drive prices down, to spur innovation, to bring about healthy economic churn.
Now, I’d like to ask you to try to take a step back from what I’ve said so far. I’ve tried to convey the foundational modesty that can be found in all that I’ve described. We openly acknowledge human limitations. We, however, allow people to be free because we admit that we don’t know what’s best for them. We don’t presume to centrally create the right answer to every possible problem in every possible scenario; instead, we allow the best minds across cultures and across the centuries to develop, to pressure test, to hone stories, practices, habits, rules, and organizations that foster the best in us and check our dangers. Then we evolve big systems and institutions — rights, democracy, free markets, separate branches — that don’t dictate outcomes but instead enable individuals and communities to generate their own conclusions.
This is, I think, the way to engage fully in the public life of the nation but with requisite reservation.
Governing by the elite
However, this humble approach, historically, has not been the norm. Few have decided to navigate human frailty through the combination of liberty, convention, and institutional design. The more common approach — and, let’s be honest, the far easier approach — is to simply empower benevolent elites to make all of our decisions for us.
Plato recommended developing precocious children into ruling philosopher-kings who would govern generously. For centuries, religions and monarchists thought eminent prelates and hereditary sovereigns could deduce the will of the Almighty and rule justly. It’s all but impossible to find modesty in Machiavelli’s amoral, power-obsessed advice in “The Prince.” Hobbes, chastened by the destructive experience of the English Civil Wars, recommended an all-powerful, benevolent Leviathan. Post-revolutionary dictators from Napoleon and Stalin to Mao and Castro were deemed by many of their contemporaries as brilliant, order-restoring leaders.
It is very, very unlikely that during your time involved in governing that people will explicitly advocate for totalitarianism. But it is absolutely the case that people will advocate for ruling immodestly.
Now, thanks to the history books, we know where these ideas lead. No matter how much we’re told that this autocrat is enlightened or that authoritarian measure is needed or that these dictatorial controls are really in our best interests, we see their track record of wars, inquisitions, witch trials, show trials, purges, work camps, killing fields, subjugation, and so on.
So it is very, very unlikely that during your time involved in governing that people will explicitly advocate for totalitarianism. But it is absolutely the case that people will advocate for ruling immodestly. They will imply or be quite up front that they or their friends really know best, that they really have everyone else’s interest in mind, that they will really be impartial and expert. This is the recurring conceit of the elite — that if only they were put in charge, then things would work out.
And now here are the two toughest things to swallow — two things about which we must remain most vigilant. First, the elites’ claims will always be most forceful and seem most compelling when times are tough. They will offer up their learning, insights, and stature as the answer when things have gone south.
Second, at various points in your career, you will agree with the priorities of the elite, the elite will be your friends, or you will be one of the elite. In these cases, there will seem to be virtually no downside to the elites’ executing on their vision.
In these cases, your faith in dignity through humility will be severely tested. To use Lincoln’s brilliant formulation, you will have to reveal if you truly believe in government of the people, by the people, and for the people… or if you trust government that we’re told is for the people but is actually of and by the elite.
I’ll offer two examples, one from history and one contemporary, so you will be steeled for the challenge.
Progressive Era hubris
The first is “Technocratic Progressivism.” A century ago, America faced tumultuous economic and social times. Industrialization was fundamentally changing work. Droves of people moved from farms to cities to find jobs. Millions and millions of immigrants arrived with unfamiliar religions, languages, and cultures. To lots of powerful, established people, self-government during such a period seemed alarming. At minimum, it seemed inadequate. Things were shifting so quickly, and so many Americans were so new to our way of doing things, that democracy needed a supplement, we were told. That supplement was “expertise.”
Technocratic progressivism was the toolbox. This is government by central administrators who purportedly have extensive, specific, technical knowledge in the domains they control — taxes, city planning, schooling, roads, and so on. The idea was that the “best men” — and that was the actual term used — the best men would be in charge. Of course, they were all men, all white, they were esteemed public figures who shared the history, culture, and religion of the majority. We would simply organize strong public institutions hierarchically and have them administered by these eminent experts. These leaders would be deeply informed and highly impartial. Most importantly, they’d generate, for the public’s own good, policies that the public would not be able to generate absent elite assistance. This, we were told, is “good government.”
These leaders would be deeply informed and highly impartial. Most importantly, they’d generate, for the public’s own good, policies that the public would not be able to generate absent elite assistance. This, we were told, is “good government.”But it turned out — as it always does — that these “best men” too had limitations.
But it turned out — as it always does — that these “best men” too had limitations. Many were racist, anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic, and/or anti-Semitic. Some believed in eugenics, even to the point of forced-sterilization laws. But beyond this, their thinking was fundamentally anti-Tocquevillian and anti-Burkean; that is, it was opposed to localism and pluralism. They did not want to elevate the self-organized initiative of the little platoons of society.
Many of the “best men” were explicitly hostile to the customs being practiced, the schools being created, and the local officials being elected by new Americans. For those of you who study social capital, you might think of it this way: The debilitation of hyper-local mediating institutions was a feature, not a bug, of the Progressive Era ethos. That period often disguised bias and anti-pluralism as science and expertise. It subordinated the wisdom found in tradition and community to the will of the democratic majority.
I give this as the first example because I think it so perfectly foreshadows something underway today. We’re in a difficult period of our nation’s history. Sixteen years ago we suffered the attacks of September 11. Then we had the failed response to Hurricane Katrina and the botched assessment of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. Then we had the banking crisis and the Great Recession. We were told — mistakenly — that we could keep our insurance if we liked our insurance. Today, millions of Americans have dropped out of the workforce, millions suffer opioid addiction, our economy continues to grow anemically, economic mobility is limited, people are abusing disability programs, we’ve been unable to control illegal immigration. And public-opinion surveys reveal Americans trust one another and our democracy at record-low numbers.
It seems to me that we are absolutely primed for another era when elites offer up their expertise as the solution. And that’s precisely what’s happening. Many of our leaders are advocating for more “data-driven decision-making” and “big data for government.” There’s “Moneyball for Government,” named for the scientific approach to improving baseball teams. The government is requiring more and more areas of the workplace to employ only government-licensed specialists. In 2016, Congress even created a “Commission on Evidence-based Policymaking.”
Now, to be clear, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with public decisions being informed by data and evidence. We should want that; we should demand that. But if these things remind you of the Progressive Era “best men” or the supposedly enlightened leaders of old, well, they should. Bear in mind that none of these things are advocating for the knowledge found in local churches or Elks clubs. They are not defending the sound judgment of tradition. They are not elevating the hot-blooded give-and-take of civic debate or the wisdom of democratic crowds. They are, instead, based on the science of experts.
The most alarming part is that behavioral economics is no longer just a set of ideas being debated in the academy; it is now a device of governing. The term — the euphemism — being used is “nudging.”
And nothing illustrates this movement or its implications for governing better than the field of “behavioral economics.” This is a relatively new academic discipline that’s part economics and part psychology. It is based on the understanding that human decision-making is defective. It argues that people are “irrational,” that we “misconceive” and “misestimate,” that we have “illusions.” It then attempts to generate “workarounds” and “tricks” so experts can help us live happier and healthier lives. We the people — we’re told — are not behaving in our own best interests. The experts can help us.
The most alarming part is that behavioral economics is no longer just a set of ideas being debated in the academy; it is now a device of governing. The term — the euphemism — being used is “nudging.” Unelected bureaucrats in an expansive network of executive-branch agencies quietly tinker with a whole host of regulations, applications, notices, scripts, and protocols to get their desired results across countless domains. Quietly, these experts are helping us make the “correct” decisions.
In 2010, the United Kingdom brought this to life via its “Behavioral Insights Team,” known as the “Nudge Unit.” It is “dedicated to the application of behavioural sciences;” one of its objectives is “enabling people to make ‘better choices for themselves’.” Through the subtlest of techniques (things like text messages and photos embedded in letters) it has encouraged people to make what the “nudgers” believe to be the right decisions about organ-donation, fine-paying, loft-insulation, charitable-giving, voter-registration, and more.
The Obama administration followed suit. In 2015, it created the “Social and Behavioral Sciences Team.” Underscoring the administration’s technocratic view that policymaking is a matter of expertise, the effort was embedded in the White House’s Office of Science and Technology. Its aim was to work across the federal government to help agencies help people make better decisions.
Dignity through humility
I suspect that this kind of thinking would’ve sounded entirely familiar to the ancient Greeks warning about hubris — Icarus flying too close to the sun or Creon antagonizing Antigone. It would’ve sounded familiar to to Shakespeare writing of Macbeth’s “vaulting ambition.”
Fortunately, we have the advice of St. Augustine: “It is pride that changed angels into devils; it is humility that makes men as angels.”
We have the insight of Confucius: “Humility is the solid foundation of all virtues.”
And we have the guidance of Ephesians: “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.”
Over the next several days — and actually in the years to come — you’ll wrestle with possibly the toughest question in governing. How do we fight to make the world a better place without becoming permanently certain and haughty?
Lincoln was able, in just one sentence, at the end of his Second Inaugural, to masterfully blend conviction and modesty.
In other words, how do we stand for something while recognizing our own limits and other people’s strengths? How do we advance eternal principles like dignity, liberty, and justice while avoiding the presumptuousness of autocrats and technocrats?
The best answer I’ve found is in the greatest line of the greatest speech of our greatest president. As the horror of the Civil War was reaching its end, Abraham Lincoln probably had feelings of profound pride and triumph and of enormous self-doubt — more than 600,000 soldiers had been killed. Lincoln was able, in just one sentence, at the end of his Second Inaugural, to masterfully blend conviction and modesty.
He told his fellow citizens to simultaneously pursue justice while recognizing our limited ability to ascertain what justice is. We must do our work, we must do the nation’s work — in his words — “with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right”… working to help one another “with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right…”
That is, I think, the ultimate expression of dignity through humility.
Comments are closed.
1789 Massachusetts Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20036
© 2017 American Enterprise Institute