December 15, 2006


Caption: We apologize, but the gratuitous animal picture feature didn't work today. It would have been an adolescent peacock displaying.)

This is the fifth and final post in a series on what a just society might look like. It was written in response to a challenge from a Goat Rope reader. If this is your first visit, please scroll down to the earlier entries.

(Also, sorry for the delay in publishing this post. Goat Rope is undergoing some renovations.)

El Cabrero survived graduate statistics classes at (we are...) Marshall University by attempting to entertain his professor. Fortunately for me, the late great Dr. Bill Westbrook was easily amused.

I could at least count on getting one question right on his tests because he asked it every time. It gave sage advice on breaking down complex statistical problems (not that I ever did) and might work pretty well in terms of solving social problems.

Here it is:

Q. How do you eat an elephant?

A. One bite at a time.

In the context of working for a better society, that would mean approaching problems through what Karl Popper called "piecemeal social reform" rather than trying to swallow the whole elephant at once. The whole elephant approach would lead to gastronomic problems in a culinary sense and a lot of carnage in the social sense if past experience is any indicator.

For one thing, many if not all human actions produce unintended consequences which could be good or bad. We don't have enough experience or knowledge of complex causal connections to anticipate all these. Nor can we predict the future or control the actions of others. A piecemeal, experimental approach gives us a chance to fiddle with things and make adjustments and corrections before too much damage is done.

Given the choice between the New Deal and the other revolutions of the 20th century, I'd take the former. It is one of the cruel features of history as I see it that during most of it revolutions are impossible and, on the rare occasions when they are, they often make things worse (admittedly, there may be some exceptions).

To quote again from Karl Popper,

In all matters, we can only learn by trial and error, by making mistakes and improvements; we can never rely on inspiration, although inspirations may be most valuable as long as they can be checked by experience. Accordingly, it is not reasonable to assume that a complete reconstruction of our social world would lead at once to a workable system. Rather we should expect that, owing to lack of experience, many mistakes would be made which could be eliminated only by a long and laborious process of small adjustments; in other words, by the rational method of piecemeal engineering whose application we advocate.

That doesn't mean we should just work on one issue at a time. We don't have that luxury when so many things are being thrown at us.

And it may be true that if we get better and better at working together to make things less bad, the world would look a lot different than it does today.

And if not, we should try something else and see how that goes.



Unknown said...

Since I was an undergrad in the 60s, I’ve had problems with revolutions:

1. Usually a revolution only exchanges one tyrant for another
2. I once saw a wonderful pantomime featuring two hands and one glove. The gloved hand swaggered about and beat down the ungloved hand until the latter attacked it and forced off the glove. For a few seconds, both hands were ungloved and equal. Then the former ungloved hand slid into the glove, began to swagger, and beat the former gloved hand.
3. When classes of a society “liberate” themselves, then what seldom increase the personal freedom of those who belong to it and have been oppressed. Rather, “liberation” often just means that a certain class assumes power… and then does both, curtail the personal freedom of the previous ruling class and implement strict rules on it.
4. It doesn’t matter to the poor who rules, for their lot in life seldom improve.

Claude Scales said...

Paragraph 2 of Nick's comment above reminds me of an old joke that I read was popular in the Soviet Union when it still existed:

"What's the difference between capitalism and socialism?

"Under capitalism, man exploits man. Under socialism, it's just the opposite."

farmergiles said...

It's an organic approach. It grows as it goes. When and where it can. So do we call this a conservative approach or a zen approach?

Revolutions seem to have programs. And they get all wrapped up in 'em.
Reforms are the same.

Popper's making perfect sense here. Likewise El Cabrero. You know what the program is. And it's big. But you don't need a program for the program.

Sure you want it all at once? That stuff's hard.

Dig into whatever's close.
Foot, trunk, whatever's handiest.