"First Projects, Then Principles" by Richard Rorty First Projects, Then Principles by Richard Rorty When I first went into philosophy, I was looking for first principles. I thought that if you could get the right principles, everything else would fall into place. I was wrong. I gradually realized that it is only when things have already fallen into place that you can figure out what principles you want. Principles are useful for summing up projects, abbreviating decisions already taken and attitudes already assumed. But if you are undecided between alternative projects, you are not going to get much help from contemplating alternative principles. (Consider, for example, the unexceptionable but conflicting moral principles cited by each side in the abortion debate.) Plausible principles are usually too uncontroversial to help one decide which projects to support. I suspect that anybody who thinks of him or herself as leftist would be happy with the most famous principle put forward by a political philosopher in recent decades, John Rawls's Difference Principle: "Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both (a) reasonably expected to be to everyone's advantage, and (b) attached to positions and offices open to all." The trouble is that most people on the right are happy with it too. You do not encounter many Republicans who tell you that we shall always have the poor with us, that deep inequalities are necessary for the successful functioning of the economy. Rather, Republicans argue (and most of them actually believe) that since the best poverty program is a thriving economy, and since such an economy requires that people who have money send it to their stockbrokers rather than to the government, redistributionist measures will not be to the advantage of the least advantaged. Such measures, they say, even though adopted with the best of intentions, turn out to violate Rawls's principle. When we on the left argue with Republicans who take this line, it is not about principles. Rather, we insist that a thriving economy can afford redistributionist measures, and that a rising tide will raise all boats only if the government constantly interferes to make sure it does. All the fruitful arguments are about facts and figures, about the concrete consequences of the passage of specific pieces of legislation. A political left needs agreement on projects much more than it needs to think through its principles. In a constitutional democracy like ours, leftist projects typically take the form of laws that need to be passed: laws that will increase socioeconomic equality. We need a list of First Projects--of laws that will remedy gaping inequalities--much more than we need agreement on First Principles. If most of the leftist magazines and organizations, and most of the labor unions, could agree on a short list of laws that urgently need passage--bills that had been, or were about to be, put before Congress or the state legislatures--maybe the term "American left" would cease to be a joke. If the Americans for Democratic Action, Common Cause, the New Party, the Democratic Socialists of America, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, NOW, the N.A.A.C.P. and all the others could get together behind a short but far-reaching People's Charter, the resulting alliance might be a force to reckon with. Once upon a time, everybody who thought of themselves as being on the left could tell you what laws were most needed: an anti-lynching law, an anti-poll tax law, the repeal of the Taft-Hartley Act, Ted Kennedy's national health insurance law and so on. Nowadays, my leftist students are hard put to it to name any laws whose passage they think urgent. They do not seem interested in what bills are before Congress or the state legislatures. Their minds are elsewhere: on what they call "cultural politics." It's easy to talk to them about individualist versus communitarian values, or multiculturalism versus monoculturalism, or identity politics versus majoritarian politics, but it is not easy to get them excited about, for example, a proposed law that would remove obstacles the federal government now places in the way of union organizers. Unless the American left can pull itself together and agree on a concrete political agenda, it is not likely to amount to much. Most leftist journals of opinion, and most leftist professors and students, share the tacit conviction that nothing can be done, that "the system" is hopeless. The idea that the trade union movement might be revived and become the center of leftist politics strikes them as farfetched. The suggestion that the country is still in basically good shape, and still has a fighting chance to break the power of the rich and greedy, seems to them naive. We need to stop airing these doubts about our country and our culture and to replace them with proposals for legislative change. For our only chance of making either the country or the culture better is to do what our forebears did: Keep trying, despite the lethargy and the selfishness, for a classless and casteless society. This is what the left did, in fits and starts, from the Progressive Era up through the social legislation that Lyndon Johnson shoved through Congress in the mid-sixties. It has not succeeded in doing much along these lines in the past thirty years. Unless the left achieves a few successes, it will never recover its morale and will gradually become even more of a joke than it is now. The only way to achieve such successes is to retrieve the votes of the Reagan Democrats, the bubbas and the high school graduates and dropouts who resent and despise the colleges and universities as much as they resent and despise the politicians. These people, male and female, black and white, are trying desperately to support households on (if they have enough luck to achieve the national average) $32,000 a year. They need help. They need, for example, unbribed elected officials, health insurance and better schools for their kids. They know perfectly well that they need these things. The left could make itself useful by offering some detailed advice on how to get them. Those three needs are good candidates for the first three items on a list of First Projects. The first of them should top that list, since most of the present socioeconomic inequities are held in place by bribes paid by the rich to politicians, bribes that the poor will never be able to match. What is delicately called "campaign finance reform" is the issue on which there is most agreement among all sorts and conditions of Americans: rage at unashamed bribe-taking unites the dropout and the doctor, the plumber and the professor. Most of their cynicism about our system comes from the knowledge that bribery is a way of life inside the Beltway--as taken for granted by the unions and the leftist lobbyists as it is by the Christian Coalition.