Judt on Conserving Justice
Why is it that here in the United States we have such difficulty even imagining a different sort of society from the one whose dysfunctions and inequalities trouble us so? We appear to have lost the capacity to question the present, much less offer alternatives to it. Why is it so beyond us to conceive of a different set of arrangements to our common advantage?
Our shortcoming—forgive the academic jargon—is discursive. We simply do not know how to talk about these things. To understand why this should be the case, some history is in order: as Keynes once observed, “A study of the history of opinion is a necessary preliminary to the emancipation of the mind.” For the purposes of mental emancipation this evening, I propose that we take a minute to study the history of a prejudice: the universal contemporary resort to “economism,” the invocation of economics in all discussions of public affairs. . . .
[A] “disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and the powerful, and to despise, or, at least, to neglect persons of poor and mean condition…is…the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments.” Those are not my words. They were written by Adam Smith, who regarded the likelihood that we would come to admire wealth and despise poverty, admire success and scorn failure, as the greatest risk facing us in the commercial society whose advent he predicted. It is now upon us.
Judt contrasts the extraordinary fortunes of individual titans of industry with the “discredited state and inadequate public resources” evident in the US. But he does not counsel a return to some golden age of statism:
The twentieth-century narrative of the progressive state rested precariously upon the conceit that “we”—reformers, socialists, radicals—had History on our side: that our projects, in the words of the late Bernard Williams, were “being cheered on by the universe.” Today, we have no such reassuring story to tell. We have just survived a century of doctrines purporting with alarming confidence to say what the state should do and to remind individuals—forcibly if necessary—that the state knows what is good for them. We cannot return to all that. So if we are to “think the state” once more, we had better begin with a sense of its limits. . . .
[F]rom a normative perspective we might begin with a moral “narrative” in which to situate our collective choices. Such a narrative would then substitute for the narrowly economic terms that constrain our present conversations. But defining our general purposes in that way is no simple matter. . . . What do we find instinctively amiss in our present arrangements and what can we do about them? What do we find unfair? What is it that offends our sense of propriety when faced with unrestrained lobbying by the wealthy at the expense of everyone else? What have we lost?
We are entering, I believe, a new age of insecurity. The last such era, memorably analyzed by Keynes in The Economic Consequences of the Peace (1919), followed decades of prosperity and progress and a dramatic increase in the internationalization of life: “globalization” in all but name. . . . Before 1914, it was widely asserted that the logic of peaceful economic exchange would triumph over national self-interest. No one expected all this to come to an abrupt end. But it did.
We have no idea what sort of world our children will inherit, but we can no longer delude ourselves into supposing that it must resemble our own in reassuring ways. . . . If social democracy has a future, it will be as a social democracy of fear. Rather than seeking to restore a language of optimistic progress, we should begin by reacquainting ourselves with the recent past. The first task of radical dissenters today is to remind their audience of the achievements of the twentieth century, along with the likely consequences of our heedless rush to dismantle them. . . . The left, to be quite blunt about it, has something to conserve. It is the right that has inherited the ambitious modernist urge to destroy and innovate in the name of a universal project.
Attorneys are often chided for standing in the way of “progress,” letting quaint values like fairness, procedure, and legal regularity block financial innovation, more rapid globalization, and corporations’ freedom to do whatever they want with their assets. Judt has articulated a Burkean rationale that should guide progressive efforts to maintain and extend great programs like Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, food stamps, and housing assistance. Like Judith Shklar’s “liberalism of fear,” that work should “never cease to revolve around the fearful knowledge of the fragility of moral and political life.”