Let’s abandon doom, gloom and Coronavirus, and talk instead about the brave new world we might be able to construct when the current crisis has wreaked havoc on the one we have.
The most basic question of political philosophy is: what should government do? The U.S. Bill of Rights is a list of things that government should not do—censor speech, favor religion, search citizens without probable cause or infringe their liberty interests or property rights without due process, among other things—but America hasn’t revisited (or, really, visited) the fundamental question: what is government for? What are the elements of the social and physical infrastructure that government in the 21st Century should provide?
And how should we define infrastructure?
We recognize physical infrastructure: roads, bridges, sidewalks, sewers, the national electrical grid. There is less recognition of the importance of other elements of the built environment: parks, libraries, public transportation, utilities, street lighting and other taken-for-granted elements that collectively produce a community’s “quality of life.” Despite almost universal agreement about the importance of physical infrastructure, America’s roads and bridges are in serious disrepair, the electrical grid is vulnerable to hacking, and sewer overflows continue to pollute rivers and streams. Aging pipes are contaminating drinking water in numerous cities and towns; the problem with lead in the water is not limited to the widely-publicized situation in Flint, Michigan.
The problems with America’s physical infrastructure are visible, widely acknowledged and await only a rebirth of political will to fix. The defects in our social infrastructure, however, are less clear-cut, and because they are highly contested, resist repair. “Social infrastructure” includes programs that help needy citizens and build community, including access to economic security, health, education, and the right to equal participation in democratic decision-making.
Aristotle taught us that social infrastructure should facilitate human flourishing.
I tend to harp on the challenges we face: a rapidly morphing information environment, overt tribalism, deepening economic inequality, widespread civic ignorance, and the corruption of America’s current legal and political structures. All of these elements of contemporary reality, plus the existential threats posed by climate change and a global pandemic, challenge America’s future.
What comes next?
We could continue the Trumpian withdrawal from global alliances and our historic civic aspirations, or we could enter a period of extreme social unrest, with escalating protests and accelerating social factionalism, leading to a very uncertain future. Or we could revisit the nation’s existing social contract, evaluate the current utility of our governing assumptions, reaffirm those that have stood the test of time, and modify structures that no longer serve us.
America’s definition of liberty as negative–the individual’s right to be free of government constraint unless s/he is harming the person or property of another– has generated significant conflict: what constitutes a harm sufficient to justify government intervention? How much deference to the rights of others is required? Which others? Is the obligation of government limited to non-interference, or do citizens have the right to demand that government pursue positive actions? If so, what are those actions?
Defining liberty has become even more complicated as America’s population has increased, as equality (another contested term) has become an equally important value, and as society has become more complex. At a minimum, genuine liberty requires more than enforcing limits on the reach of government, important as those limits remain. True liberty– allowing individuals to determine and pursue their individual aspirations– requires ensuring that those individuals have the means to exercise choice, and sufficient information upon which to base consideration of those choices.
Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen argued that freedom is the ability to exercise individual agency, and that personal agency is inescapably qualified and constrained by available social, political and economic opportunities. In other words, individual agency is dependent upon what Sen calls “social arrangements”–what I am calling “social infrastructure.”
In today’s complex and inter-dependent society, government’s responsibility cannot simply be to get out of the way.
Anti-government attitudes that permeate contemporary American culture have been profoundly influenced by a Protestant Ethic that exaggerated the agency of the individual and minimized the extent to which the social infrastructure contributes to, enables—or hinders—individual achievement. In addition to older, traditional functions, today’s governments must provide citizens with a social safety net that affirmatively supports human liberty by allowing citizens to reach their potential.
That safety net can be constructed in ways that unify or further divide us.
A Native American parable is instructive: One evening, an elderly Cherokee brave told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people. He said, “My son, the battle is between two wolves that are inside all of us. One is evil. The other is good.” The grandson asked, “Which wolf wins?” and the grandfather replied, “The one you feed.”
America needs a social and political infrastructure that feeds—encourages, promotes and rewards—prosocial and pro-democratic behaviors and norms.
It is time to rethink how government should “feed” the good wolf.