Thinking Transcendentally

The mortgage crises follows a pattern of reasoning analogous to that sometimes followed in the national security context. When it comes to national security, we are warned that the Constitution is “not a suicide pact.” This catch-phrase is used for the argument that in times of national security threats, constitutionally protected civil liberties should not be used to constrain the necessary actions of executive officials. Why? Because security is a necessary condition for the enjoyment of civil liberties. Without security, so the argument goes, we can have no liberty. Thus, when times are tough, we should not allow constitutional commitments to get in the way of allowing officials to act as necessary to protect national security. (I critique a specific application of this argument here).

Similar reasoning seems to be at stake in the present financial crisis. In nearly as direct a catch-phrase, we are warned that leaving financial obligations untouched as they are would be an economic “suicide pact,” leading to unpredictable, though likely dire, consequences for the country as a whole. (Bernanke: action is “urgently required to stabilize the situation and avert what otherwise could be very serious consequences for our financial markets and our economy.”) In times of threat to the overall security of the economy, background beliefs in individual economic decisions and legal obligations (more or less, some version of laissez faire capitalism) should not be deployed to constrain the necessary actions of executive officials. Why? Because structural security of the economy is a necessary condition for the good of us all. Thus, when economic times are particularly tough, we should empower executive officials to act as necessary to protect economic security.

Both of these rationales depend on a form of transcendental argument: the necessary condition for the possibility of X (enjoying liberty), is Y (the provision for security). My central question is: Can We Think Transcendentally about Something Other Than Security?

I do not question the rationality of relying on transcendental argument in these situations. Of course, there can be no civil liberties without security (but, naturally, there cannot be a whole lot of other things either). Likewise, naturally, there can be no individual economic prosperity without a sound economic system. So because national and economic security are necessary conditions for the enjoyment of other aspects of everyday life (economic and civil), their protection, in an important respect, gets priority. How that priority gets realized—whether, for example, particular civil liberties must have diminished protection—has to be worked out in all the intricate details of the particular circumstances of particular security threats.

My question is not with the calibration of the details, but with the limited occasions we have for deploying transcendental arguments in the first place. Why do we use them (and give them credit) only in the context of threats to security? There are many other potential uses of the transcendental argument for public policy. Educational opportunities, healthcare, minimum wages, adequate housing—to name a few features of everyday life—are also necessary conditions on which the good of all depends, I would argue. Without adequate provision for and distribution of these goods, we fail to provide the necessary conditions for individuals to pursue happiness or to realize the blessings of liberty. Liberty may not be worthwhile if one has joined a “suicide pact” (as the national security argument suggests), but neither is it worth so very much if one has been forced into a different kind of “suicide pact” for want of proper access to health care.

As a rhetorical matter, one reason transcendental arguments work well with security is that they are bolstered by fear. We fear the unknown consequences of not taking adequate precautionary action to protect the necessary condition and avoid the predicted dire consequences. If we don’t give up some of our liberties, we are told, we may suffer a “mushroom cloud” over an American city. It is a lot more difficult to motivate through fear the necessity of providing adequate educational opportunities (Fear of what? Long term social destabilization and democratic failure? These are considerations that are too abstract and long-term to serve as effective motivations.).

As a substantive matter, necessity seems less acute for other social goods. No dramatic events like terrorist attacks or market crashes mark the failure to provide for education and healthcare as they do for security. The effects of ignoring necessary social conditions are cumulative and too often invisible. Cumulative and dispersed as they may be, goods necessary for the enjoyment of everyday life are nonetheless necessary. Thus, both security and social goods can set conditions under which the enjoyment of everyday life and liberty becomes possible. To say this is not to establish whether government has the obligation to protect or provide for these other conditions in the way government is assumed to have the obligation to provide for security (I happen to think government does). I do wish to suggest, however, that as we contemplate acting on the basis of a transcendental argument to allocate resources on behalf of economic security, we might begin to think anew about whether we should act on other transcendental arguments to allocate resources in support of equally important social conditions necessary for the public good.

You may also like...

1 Response

  1. Frank says:

    Excellent points here. If this is a prelude to a new Great Society array of things like Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start, etc., it looks a lot better than if it’s merely one more episode of crony capitalism.

    I’ve heard softer versions of the transcendental argument–namely that a well-functioning credit market is akin to “primary goods” that all people need. I can see that type of infrastructural rationale.