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News First Projects, Then Principles by Richard Rorty

  1. Jun 2, 2003 #1
    "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.
  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 2, 2003 #2
    Suppose somebody like Paul Wellstone or Barbara Boxer introduced a discarded section of the McCain-Feingold Act--the one stipulating that a candidate cannot appear on TV except during free time provided by the networks, which is mandated in exchange for the broadcasters' license over chunks of the electronic spectrum. Suppose he or she titled it "An Act to Prevent the Bribing of Candidates." Suppose the unions proclaimed that from now on they would pay bribes only to politicians who supported this measure--candidates who would help insure that unions would no longer need to spend their members' dues on bribes. Suppose the unions promised, once that measure was passed, to spend the money previously used for bribery on getting out the votes of their rank and file in favor of the legislation that would do their membership the most good.

    Another obvious candidate for such legislation is universal health insurance--the issue that Clinton rode to victory, played around with and then forgot about. The poorest fifth of the country still has no medical insurance, and the rest of us are supporting hordes of insurance-company employees--people hired to deny us as much care as they possibly can. Despite retrenchments made in Britain, Scandinavia and elsewhere, no other industrialized democracy would even contemplate dropping universal health insurance. Visitors from Europe and Canada simply cannot believe what happens when uninsured Americans get sick.

    Clinton's failure to get his medical care plan through Congress is being treated like a $300 million movie that flopped ludicrously at the box office, rather than as the national tragedy it was. At this point, the details of a new proposal do not much matter--the old Kennedy single-payer bill might do as well as any. If the left would pick such a bill, drag it into every political conversation and demand to know the position of every candidate for national office on it, we might finally be able to do what Truman hoped to do: Make sure there are no charity cases, that anybody who walks into a hospital has the same rights to the same treatments.

    What should be the third item on a list of First Projects? Perhaps it should be the equalization of opportunity in primary and secondary education--something that can only be had if we drop the absurd institution of local financing of schools. If ever an arrangement flew in the face of the Difference Principle, that system of financing does. It insures that the quality of a child's education is proportional to the price of her parents' home. The courts of New Jersey and Texas have tried to get the suburbs to kick in some money to repair and staff the schools in the urban ghettos and the rural slums, but without much success.

    If a kid grows up in a house with some books and a pervading sense of economic security, she already has quite enough of an educational advantage. She does not deserve the additional boost of cleaner, newer and safer school buildings, or better-paid and less-harassed teachers, than are enjoyed by students in the ghettos. There is no widely disseminated comprehensive plan for equalizing educational opportunity in this country, but we desperately need one.

    So much for my suggestions about items that might head the list of First Projects for the U.S. left. Maybe they are the wrong items or are arranged in the wrong order. But at least they share one feature: They are all projects designed to bring the United States up to the level of socioeconomic equality enjoyed by most of the citizens of the other industrialized democracies.

    Lots of countries, long ago, adopted laws along the lines of the three I have outlined. In those countries, candidates get radio and TV time for free, during relatively short campaign periods. There are no medical charity cases; medical care is the right of all citizens. To them, the vast disparities between America's suburban and inner-city schools are unimaginable.

    These countries have problems, and their citizens are worried. But they have done what we haven't done. They have conceded, grudgingly but steadily, that the best use to make of a thriving economy is to use tax money to increase socioeconomic equality; to make it easier for poor children to get the same life chances as rich children. If the left would unceasingly offer invidious comparisons between Canadian and U.S. health care, between the French icoles maternelles and our lack of daycare, between British political campaigns and ours, maybe some headway could be made.

    John Dewey hoped that democratic politics would cease to be a matter of batting plausible but contradictory principles back and forth. He hoped that it would become a matter of discussing the results, real or imagined, of lots of different social experiments. The invidious comparisons I am suggesting amount to saying: Look, a lot of good experiments have been run, and some of them have been pretty successful. Let's give them a try. This rhetoric, when combined with a short, easily memorizable list of laws that need to be passed, might give my students a rallying point. It might help some candidates for the Democratic nomination resist the steady shift of the political center toward the right.

    That shift toward the right is likely to continue--and the poor will keep right on getting poorer--despite the fact that all our politicians subscribe to all the good old egalitarian principles. New principles will not help reverse this shift, but the success of a few key experiments might.

    The Nation
    22 December 1997
  4. Jun 2, 2003 #3


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    Staff: Mentor

    I didn't read a single word past the title. [zz)]
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