Thursday, March 8, 2012

Means, Ends, and Democracy in California

It shouldn’t be news to anyone that the greatest threat to California is a democratic deficit.  People are voting in shrinking numbers, particularly in local and statewide elections that often have the greatest impact on our lives.  A small minority of our legislature—barely over a third—controls our state’s purse strings, and has mastered the ability of dictating an agenda out of keeping with the values that Californians express in polls and public opinion surveys.  We elect representatives in our districts in such a way that a large number of Californians are disenfranchised (think Republicans in Alameda and San Francisco counties, and Democrats in Shasta and Siskiyou Counties).  Our finances and democracy are locked on a path set by voters in 1978 (the year Proposition 13—at the heart of many of our ills—was passed) at the expense of the current generation. 

The chaos that this democratic deficit introduces into our politics—politics in the broadest sense: the way we think about ourselves as citizens and our relations to one another and to the state—has also manifested itself in our inability to introduce logic and order into our civic conversation.  What I mean is this: instead of beginning the discussion with a debate about the fundamentals—how we’d like our democracy to function, what the responsibilities of our state to its citizens ought to be, what the obligations of citizens to one another ought to be, and what value system should underpin our law-making—we have leapfrogged the conversation about the parameters of the debate and are going at one another hammer-and-tongs over what the tax rate should be, the amount by which we should cut school funding, and the extent to which we should deprive citizens of services that for many years an overwhelming majority of Californians took for granted as comprising a central part of the contract between citizens and government.


For some of the most thought-provoking and serious commentary on the difficulties inherent in maintaining a functioning democracy, it’s worth turning to Philip Selznick.  Selznick wrote, among other things, an engrossing study of one of the twentieth century’s greatest social and infrastructural engineering projects, the Tennessee Valley Authority.  The TVA was born of the heady idealism which characterised the New Deal era.  It was designed to create a coherent plan for the social and economic regeneration of the basin of one of the nation’s great river systems.  One of its creators, David Lilienthal (absurdly tarred by Republicans on a witch-hunt as a communist) wrote of the ideal underpinning the project: “TVA is an effective effort to decentralise the functioning of the federal government, to reverse the trend toward centralisation of power in Washington, to delegate, dilute, and withdraw federal power out of Washington and back into the regions and states and localities, insofar as the development of natural resources is concerned”.

Now to me, that is a fascinating statement of purpose.  It is not the knee-jerk anti-government rhetoric of today’s Republican Party.  Nor is it some reflexive defence of centralisation at all costs.  It recognises that there are some things best done by power directed by a central, democratic authority.  But it is honest about the limits of the centre to see to the regions, and so what it proposes is not an extirpation of power from the centre, but an ambitious effort to move the centre to the regions, and to place greater power over that centralised authority with citizens.  At one level, it is nothing more than an older version of today’s rhetoric (adopted by California Governor Jerry Brown amongst others, along with elements in the Republican Party) about moving government towards the people.  But rather than using that shallow rhetoric as an excuse to cut services or simply pass on responsibility, the TVA project was a genuine attempt to do something new, and something which its creators, a serious and intelligent group of individuals, thought potentially powerful.  It was not for nothing that Lilienthal titled his account of the project’s implementation Democracy on the March

Its end was the development of a region through the use of science and technology.  Noble and perhaps uncontroversial enough.  But it was a project infused with moral purpose, not growth for its own sake.  “The physical achievements that science and technology now make possible”, Lilienthal wrote, “may bring no benefits, may indeed be evil, unless they have a moral purpose, unless they are conceived and carried out for the benefit of the people themselves.  Without such a purpose, advances in technology may be disastrous to the human spirit”.2  Therefore, in its founders’ estimation, “the story of TVA at the grass roots is not merely a story of soil conservation.  It is an account of how through a modern expression of ancient democratic principles human energies have been released in furtherance of a common purpose”.3

TVA’s founders thought as much about the means as the ends.  Critics might say too much.  As early as 1944, the fascination with the method led to efforts to export TVA as an undifferentiated model to be carted around the world whenever regional development was on the table.4  


But, having wandered, we should return to Selznick.  In TVA and the Grass Roots: A Study of Politics and Organization, he wrote, “Democracy has to do with means, with instruments, with tools which define the relationship between authority and individual”.5  He went on to describe the tension between means and ends: “How difficult it is for even radical idealists to avoid the tyranny of means and the impotence of ends.  Means tyrannise when the commitments they build up divert us from our true objectives.  Ends are impotent when they are so abstract and unspecified that they offer no principles of criticism and assessment” 6

Now both political Left and Right  in California could stand accused of falling into the trap that Selznick identifies.  Progressives, in defending (correctly but uncritically) the remit of teachers’ unions (their power a means towards realising a prosperous, well-protected work-force), for example, give cover to bad or ineffective teachers who make up a small but visible percentage of the teachers in our schools.  Although most uncritical defenders of the unions in California likely have the best interests of students in mind, they look to the public like they have lost the plot when they appear to defend the prerogatives of the teachers (and I suspect we’ve all had them) who pop in a DVD and kick back, or who consider their work finished once they’ve handed out the day’s assignment. 

But in California today, it is the political Right which has rhetorically prioritised the ‘means’ at the expense of the ‘ends’ (although it is no coincidence that their major financial supporters benefit materially from this obsession).  We are citizens in a democracy, and as Selznick wrote, we should be debating “the relationship between authority and individual”.  Instead, we are debating taxes: who should pay them, how much they should or shouldn’t pay, why they may or may not be an oppressive burden, how we can compensate by depriving some members of our community of services and opportunities when other members regard taxation as an infringement on some sacred, undefined right...  And so on.

It is a morally and logically bankrupt conversation, and one which is a perfect illustration of what happens when the “means” (taxation) are allowed to tyrannise a polity, and build up a set of artificial concerns and anaemic grievances.  Because nobody (except the handful of economic fundamentalist who run the Republican Party) thinks of taxation as an end in itself.  It is a tool, the management of which allows us to realise a set of other priorities which today go undebated. 

Our obsession with the means is keeping us from thinking about a moral end-point for the exercise of state power: an educated, critical, healthy, secure, and empowered public.  We are unable to rationally consider how the benefits of investment accrue not to some imaginary small class of welfare scroungers, but to the whole of society.  We all benefit from accessible state parks; from public libraries with long opening hours; from well-funded school systems that allow teachers to give students more of their time; from universities that keep their doors open to students from all socioeconomic backgrounds; from regulatory agencies which limit the pollution that can be put into our water, air, fields and food; and social services which create a humane and habitable quality of life floor for our poorest and weakest citizens.

We benefit because we’ve attend those schools and universities, because we walk in those parks and use those libraries, breathe that air and eat that food, and also because, even if we might not number among the weak and needy, our communities will be safer and more united if we endeavour to create an equal society in which no citizens are cast out for a lack of opportunity or due to circumstances beyond their control. 


A good place to go to see a more measured, thoughtful and systematic approach to our politics—through a ‘measurement’ of our polity—is A Portraitof California.  It’s easy to get distracted wandering through the pages of informative statistics, fascinating diagrams, and carefully-constructed arguments (and worth spending some time perusing the Portrait with an open mind).  But the report’s methodology is what is most interesting.  The authors use the Human Development Index to measure how Californians in different parts of the state, from different ethnic backgrounds, and from different economic lives are faring.  They define Human Development “as the process of enlarging people’s freedoms and opportunities and improving their well-being”.  It is an approach “dedicated not to how big an economy can swell, but to what ordinary people can do and who they can become”.  The three measurable components include health, education and income.7

It might seem obvious that any moral society should have as its first concern the welfare of citizens rather than the health of some abstract measurement of its economy.  But if you read through a document like A Portrait of California you’ll realise how little any of its concerns—and they are vital ones—get articulated in our current political discourse.  The reason?  I’d say it’s because the Portrait is all about the ends.  HDI is as imaginary a number as GDP.  But it reflects a prosperous and healthy state of existence to which we can aspire as a society.  As ends go, it’s pretty concrete, and not at all impotent.  So long as we can summon up the ability to imagine a state of being or existence, that state is within our reach: it is simply a matter of using the right tools to construct it (and for an excellent account of what the ‘how’ might look like, see Joe Mathews and Mark Paul’s California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It).

By contrast, politics in Sacramento are subject to the tyranny of the means.  Thanks to the shameless manoeuvring of one party in particular, to the cowardice of the political establishment as a whole, and to the hopefully-aberrant selfishness and carelessness of our citizenry, we’ve lost sight of those concerns which should always be at the heart of the debate. 

The best thing we could do for our state is to forget all about taxes and spending and deficits for a while, and to have a long (but not too long—time is running short!) and serious collective think about the kind of society we want to live in.  Then, and only then, we should think about whether or not our polity is equipped with the tools, the structures, and the kind of political representation we need to do the job of repairing California.


1  David Lilienthal.  TVA: Democracy on the March.  New York: Harper, 1953: xiv to xv
2 Lilienthal: 5
3  Lilienthal: 93
4 Herman Finer.  The TVA: Lessons for International Application.  Montreal: International Labour Office, 1944.
5 Philip Selznick.  TVA and the Grass Roots: a Study of Politics and Organization.  Berkeley: University of California Press: 3
6 Selznick: x
7 A Portrait of California 2.  The authors note that we’ve seen a recent rise in GDP (a traditional measurement of prosperity) that was notably unaccompanied  by any rise in prosperity or welfare for most Americans.  The HDI, as used in A Portrait of California, combines “life expectancy at birth”, “educational degree attainment”, “school enrolment”, and “median earnings” (11).  The authors (sensibly in my estimation) decline to adjust earnings for cost of living, explaining that a higher cost of living tends to bring with it a plethora of other life-enhancing benefits (better schools in the area, safer neighbourhoods, grocers with healthier food, access to open space, etc) which would be overlooked if the adjustment were made.

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