P O S T E D B Y A L B E R T
In philanthropic and nonprofit work, discussions of “systemic reform” can sometimes beguile us. We might, without realizing it, succumb to the Systems Heresy: the naïve belief that fair institutional structures and a fair enforcement of laws will inevitably produce fair social outcomes.
We understand that unequal initial conditions—a legacy of slavery for one group, say, but not for another—can lead to unequal outcomes, however fairly constituted our institutions and laws might be. But the problems associated with the Systems Heresy go deeper than this.
Imagine an island of ten million souls inhabited by two tribes, one called the Yooks, the other the Zooks. The Yooks, who outnumber the Zooks ten to one, part their hair on the right while the Zooks part their hair on the left. Imagine further that a god—call him Milton—endows the island’s inhabitants with equal abilities and gives to each Yook and Zook five thousand Talents with which he or she might participate in a system of production and exchange.
There’s one problem: the Yooks hate the Zooks. This bigotry drives the Yooks to give all their business to Yook merchants. Yooks, who by their overwhelming numbers own most of the island’s wealth, more readily aggregate their capital to increase the productive capacity of their businesses, further favoring Yook communities. Over time, the Zooks fall behind the Yooks. Unable to compete effectively with their more numerous and increasingly more prosperous neighbors, Zook communities languish then decay.
This thought experiment suggests one way a fair system with equal initial conditions might lead to unequal social outcomes over time. It’s certainly not fair of the Yooks to shut out the Zooks, but it’s a bit of a strain to say that this lack of fairness is a property of the island’s system of institutions and laws. It’s more accurately a moral failing on the part of the Yooks. This moral failing undermines whatever degree of fairness might be built into the island’s institutional structures.
This is for me the great lesson of the Systems Heresy: systemic reform that doesn’t somehow attend to the values we bring to a given system is a shot in the dark and borders on social engineering of the most speculative variety.
The classically Liberal conception of the state provides a values-neutral framework of rights in which each individual can pursue his or her own vision of the Good. In a Liberal state, it’s not the government but rather civil society that’s most clearly charged with perfecting and transmitting the values we share as a people. This great civilizing work happens—or rather, should happen—in our schools and churches, in our trade unions, on the streets, wherever people gather to reflect and deliberate.
I’m not convinced, however, that our discussion and negotiation of values is robust enough to prevent us from injecting the venom of the Yooks into any system we might yet devise or evolve to. Our ignorance of history, the corporate ownership of the media and its concentration in fewer hands, and the abiding anti-intellectual climate in this country are among the factors exploited by those who resist the kind of social transformation many of us desire and work for.
Systemic reform is necessary, but it’s only one of the battles progressives need to engage.
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Image source: Dr. Seuss’s Butter Battle Book