The problem of sustaining not only the continuing existence of human society but also of a just human society has challenged both dreamers and those who consider themselves realists.
This second group, so-called and sometimes self-appointed realists, is comprised to a great degree also of dreamers who happen to be unaware about essential skills and knowledge they themselves and society in general do not possess which may apply to the very problems they propose to solve.
The present paradox of achieving social justice involves theoreticians and political actors who think political power can directly achieve justice, when power, exerted over time to sustain continuous human systems instead more likely forms institutions and therefore bureaucracies which, sometimes very usefully, slow the effects of power and sometimes stop power dead in its tracks, for the principal reason that the power-wielders very often lack the foresight, knowledge, and skills to properly construct and lead the institutions and bureaucracies. This is another manifestation of what I (not originally) call the political illusion, an illusion that assumes that political power can in an of itself solve human problems over the long term.
Political power, since it must be sustained in one way or another–even in a dictatorship–by the consent of at least an elite in the population, tends to turn long-term capital assets, principally buildings, infrastructure, and institutions, into short-term political assets, and thus to exhaust the potential of these assets to sustain a just society.
Political power-seeking is thus the very enemy of sustainabilty, because sustainability properly treats long-term assets as long term assets, while political action generally doesn’t.
The phenomenon of the serial ribbon-cutting politician who immediately loots a new project for the next round of supposed innovations elsewhere in an endless and decaying series of unsustainable promises is only but one example. In general, few public projects are established with the supply chain of resources to sustain themselves over time, since politicians tap cash from all sources for their next series of promises or for their next inevitable crisis.
Political infrastructure thus differs from real infrastructure the way a Wild West movie set, composed of facades, differs from a real town. Self-styled political realists to a great degree dwell in the Wild West movie set version of reality, which is useful for media photo-ops but not for when it rains.
To build an unsustained, unsustainable public institution may one day be considered a crime. Some day, we will view unsustained public housing, public hospitals, public schools, and public infrastructure as public acts of injustice.
Community and political movements nevertheless often try to build institutions that may outlast themselves, schools and places of employment being a common example.
But theorists, writers, and activists too often, if not always, lack the practical skills of institutional organization, know little of what Peter Drucker called the liberal art of management, and know even less of the practices of continuous organizational improvement, many of these based upon science and engineering, so their institutional innovations become like many others, mired in their own bureaucratic processes and procedures. This predicament leads to diminishing returns and to an endless series of unrealized bright ideas, and eventually, inertia or cataclysm.
Of the many challenges facing our global society in its history, one foundational challenge remains: how to feed, clothe, shelter, heal, and transport each other within a variable natural system subject to weather, accident, and disaster.
Upon this shifting foundation, the even more shifting patterns of human demography manifest themselves. And if there are not enough healthy people, questions of economic growth and social progress become moot.
While this outline may seem elementary, political activists often forget that a community is built upon a population that in the end depends on nature, and that the effective distribution of resources within this sphere depends as much, if not more, upon accumulated knowledge of science and engineering, as especially applied in contemporary agriculture, as it does upon politics. Informed, competent action thus comes into play.
Political power can, for a time, seem to defy the forces of natural, demographic, or economic “weather” or “gravity,” but inevitably these fundamental forces break through, and negate the effects of political power, because political power cannot direct weather or the force of gravity.
The initial economy, literally the translation of the original word, is the human household, predominantly composed as the family when a male and a female bond for life. From natural resources and human demography grow culture (religion, folkways, arts and letters, leisure, etc.) and economic activity, upon culture and economy grow institutions and organizations with their accompanying communications, science and engineering, public health, law, and politics.
None of these cumulative societal actions could exist without continuous human mastery of the necessary skills and knowledge leading to effective action, be that action successfully producing a crop, a road, an automobile, or a classroom of literate students.
None of these cumulative forms of organization could endure without the various methods that society has learned to hedge and to insure, and therefore immunize itself, against natural disasters and failures of crops, production, supply, and of public health.
And none of these activities could continue without the establishment of basic forms of trust throughout society, which ensures communication, continuity, and freedom of innovation. Religion, the arts, leisure activities, and other manifestations of culture play a key binding role in the establishment of common human references, and thereby trust.
Human mercy plays an even more critical role in sustaining human trust. The mercy of a U.S. Grant, inspired by Lincoln’s “with malice toward none,” on a Robert E. Lee and his soldiers spared a nation from guerrilla warfare, and thereby saved it.
The integration and advancement of human society in all of these fields of endeavor could also not exist without the accumulating and exchanging nature of the city, and its meeting places and crossroads of transformation and regeneration, whether these be houses of worship, theaters, studios, or ultimately universities, which bring together and sustain science, engineering, agriculture, arts and letters, law, medicine, and all the other disciplines of human mastery that fan out and populate families, businesses, schools, hospitals, labs, farms, mines, and all forms of active human enterprise.
Human society is thus composed of many interacting and composite goods, but it is fundamentally grounded upon natural resources subject to variability manifested by growth, decay, change, and disaster.
These processes of variability and especially decay echo throughout every human system, and must be thoroughly understood and mastered within each human context for a just and sustainable society to thrive. The mastery of the processes of variability and of decay is fundamental to human competence.
The political illusion lives as if nature or demography or economy would never break through and undermine societal stability, but inevitably they do. The political illusion is not so much devoted to progress as to the self-perpetuating of a given elite, in coalition with trailing elites. The political illusion claims to be about the many, but in the end, it is almost always about the few.
The principal political and economic theories of the past two hundred years, be they Marxist or capitalist, have represented wishfully dangerous and destructive short-cuts to human progress by promising their own particular leap over the practical challenges inherent in managing land, labor, and capital resources in putatively just and fair ways.
These short-cuts, framed as political ideologies, have subsumed art, religion, science, and culture into their domain as mere cheering sections, and have thereby weakened and corrupted these as independent, useful, and also transcendent societal assets. These political ideologies have killed millions upon millions of human beings, and in the end, have merely established flawed institutions and bureaucracies that to this day remain un-mastered, uninformed, inefficient, and ineffective.
Bureaucracy, in spite of itself, plays a useful role, as well. Bureaucracy manages critical information and resources, and accumulates, implements, and moderates law and regulation. Bureaucracy is therefore necessary for human survival, and is a principal pattern seen in mediating institutions.
But bureaucracy is also where everyone’s pet idea for reform goes to die. Politicians continue to give bureaucracy its (usually unfunded) mandate, and then they, who often manufactured bureaucracy in the first place, are reduced to haphazardly bullying it since nothing else, from their perspective, appears to work.
The problem of the 21st century is therefore, pace W.E.B. DuBois, not so much the color line, but un-mastered bureaucracy, and in general, lack of mastery of our own work and professional activities. Or to put it bluntly, the problem of the 21st century is our own incompetence.
It is therefore not progressives and not capitalists, but incompetent progressives and incompetent capitalists, who are the enemies of human progress.
None of us, from the digger of ditches to the President of the United States, really comes to their job well prepared to do it. We have met the incompetents, and they are we.
To build a just society, I therefore propose that we do not carry the discussion forward at this point from the point of view solely of political economy, which can come later, but to begin considering the dignity and capability of each human person, which for a Catholic like myself is usually the starting point.
Not only must each human person have the capacity to be good (meaning, morally good) for society to be good, as the mythical traveler Raphael Hythloday stated in Thomas More’s Utopia, but each human person must be informed and skilled enough to effectively do good.
Yet another virtue is needed. Each of these good and competent persons must have what Alexandr Solzhenitsyn called “civic courage,” the willingness to speak out when something wasn’t right. Without civic courage, our knowledge of what could be improved would be lost, and our society would also not be free.
Recently, when Cuban human rights blogger Yoani Sánchez was challenged by someone who pointed to the availability of food, shelter, and health care in Cuba, she didn’t stop to blink. Ms. Sánchez stated that a bird in a cage has such things. Civic courage makes such a discussion, but also a free society, possible.
Finally, each good person must be not only morally good and just, but merciful. The relationship of mercy with justice, one of the most profound contributions of Blessed John Paul II, is often the most overlooked aspect of a just society. [I write these words on 4/7/13, Divine Mercy Sunday. Here’s a reference to Pope Francis’s homily for the day.]
It is to the topics of moral goodness, competence, civic courage, and mercy in a free and just society that I will turn when I next have the chance to continue this essay.
© Copyright 2013, Albert J. Schorsch, III
All Rights Reserved