HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

July 21, 2008
From Liberty Street

A Jumpable Gap

John Turner


Watching Jared Bernstein, the author of Crunch, on Book TV yesterday, I was once again forced to confront the biggest and most frustrating question in politics: why is it that fairly simple truths cannot be learned by a majority of voters in a democratic society like ours?

Mr. Bernstein has become known as a writer who can explain economics -- supposedly an abstruse science -- to ordinary people. And he's able to do it because he starts with a simple, and what should be obvious, proposition. Economics is not an objective scientific discipline. It's actually a collection of decisions about how to organize society to produce and distribute goods and opportunities. Somebody makes these decisions, and they are made to benefit some people more than others. In a democracy, if the people don't think the goods are being distributed fairly, then the voters can decide to spread them out in another fashion. And deciding to modify economic distribution does not violate any cosmic laws. It's a simple political act.

Once voters understand this, they can look at what's going on, decide how they would like it to be changed, and vote into office the candidates who will modify the system to their liking. The trouble is, this almost never happens. Why not?

That's the overweening question. Why don't voters in a democratic society create the kind of society they want?

The answer to that question is far more complex than economics.

The first part of the answer, I suppose, is that they don't know what they want because they haven't thought about it. They can't be bothered to ask themselves what kind of society they would actually like to live in. And until they do that, they can't make rational political decisions.

An obvious objection is that people want different and conflicting things. The clear resolution of that problem is that if you want conflicting things you have to decide what you want more. You have to decide what comes first. Americans are very bad at doing that. We need to work at an educational and political system that will help us do it more sensibly than we've done it up till now.

A second objection is that different people want different things. George Bush and I, for example, don't want to live in the same sort of country. The resolution of our conflict is, supposedly, majority rule. But the resolution can be reasonably stable only if the majority make decisions in line with what they actually want. And we know that's not the case. If there's one thing polls over the past ten years have established beyond doubt, it's that a majority of the citizens favor policies very different from the policies the current administration has pursued. But when it comes to supporting their own preferences at the ballot box, huge numbers vote, over and again, in opposition to them.

These two practices -- refusing to decide what's most important in society, and consistently voting against one's own interests -- constitute the gap Americans must jump across if they wish to have a rational and just society.

It's not a wide chasm. It would be relatively easy to leap across it. It's a matter of will.

There have been signs, recently, that the will may be strengthening. The candidate who most observers now think will gain the presidency will help the people pursue their own goals more effectively than recent politicians have. He won't be perfect in that respect, of course. He's subject to the same fears and doubts about our best will that the rest of us are. But, he will be better and, I happen to think, a great deal better.

Still, he can't be anything more than an agent of an activated will. And if our will is going to be more active than it has been, we, the people, have to ask ourselves why it has lain dormant for so long. What is it about us, the people, that has produced such a groggy democracy? You can find answers in any daily newspaper -- laziness, greed, stupidity, arrogance, bigotry, fanaticism. But those are only abstractions without much explanatory power.

The truth is, I'm afraid, that a drugged will in a democracy is a gigantic mystery. It's like a deep-seated, powerful neurosis in an individual person, holding us back from who we would like to be. And as most therapists will tell you, the first step in conquering a neurosis is the desire to conquer it. And that, of course, presents us with the biggest leap of all.


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