polycentricity: the case for a (very) mixed economy

I haven’t really studied Quinn Slobodian’s history of neo-liberalism, Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism, nor Nancy MacLean’s Democracy In ChainsThe Deep History Of The Radical Right’s Stealth Plan For America. I am following the controversy about the latter, but don’t have anything useful to add to it. I would, however,  offer a perspective that may be a little unusual and that would influence how I’d assess any arguments in this domain.

I am deeply committed to polycentricity. I believe that a society ought to encompass a democratic national government, regional and local governments, an independent legal system with its own logic, a civil service and regulatory agencies, bureaucratic firms, markets, voluntary associations, religious denominations that vary from hierarchical to congregational, labor unions, parties and political movements, an institutionalized press, autonomous scholarly and scientific bodies and institutions, loose networks, and various kinds of families–each as centers of power. None should dominate. Each should check the others.

I believe in polycentricity because unitary political systems degenerate into tyranny regardless of their objectives. The Chinese Communist Party has evolved from a radically egalitarian movement into a club dominated by rapacious billionaires. How could that happen? Because, in the long run, it doesn’t matter what you believe or say you will do. It matters whether and how your power is checked.

I also believe in polycentricity because I accept the Hayekian argument that we are incapable of designing highly complex systems that are any good. We are better off with emergent social organization. However, I disagree with those Hayekians (not necessarily including Hayek himself) who claim that a market plus common law is the perfect manifestation of emergent social order. Markets are actually designed systems, and they tend to colonize the other domains if unchecked. A truly emergent society encompasses many different forms and allows people to choose among the forms and innovate within them. In other words, a society that has an assertive state and a strong market is more Hayekian than one with only a market (as if that were possible.)

Therefore, I am not surprised to observe people trying to build up strong democratic states that have powers to tax and regulate, nor am I surprised to see people working to create pro-market institutions that are insulated from democracy, such as international trade regimes. Both efforts should be expected in a pluralist political economy. I don’t assume that the builders of welfare states are trying to command the heights of the economy so that they can suppress individual freedoms (as some hard-core libertarians would argue), but I also don’t assume that the designers of pro-market rules are trying to subvert democracy. It’s all part of the expected give-and-take of polycentricity.

This is not to minimize the stakes. Whether or not countries a sign free-trade agreement has real implications–good, bad, or both–for jobs, for the environment, and for other institutions, from governments to unions. It even affects cultures and mentalities. These are matters of grave concern. But I don’t interpret them as signs of a doomsday struggle between “the market” and “democracy.”

How conflicts are resolved has different effects on different people. For example, a free trade agreement might benefit consumers and firms but cost some people jobs, which, in turn, can damage and even shorten their lives. Therefore, it is appropriate to assess any arrangement from the perspective of distributive justice. However, if you think that you can design one sovereign institution–such as a government–that will consistently, wisely, and fairly define and enforce principles of distributive justice, then I want to see how this entity will be structured and who will be in charge of it–not only today, but once their grandchildren inherit their privileges. Even more important, I want to know how you will move our world from not having such an institution to having it, in the face of resistance.

My bias is that people must assess and enforce distributive justice, and we should do so through the various institutions available to us: a whole range of governments, movements, courts, media forums, etc. This is a citizen-centered rather than a state- or market-centered model. It doesn’t negate the significance of struggles between states and markets, yet it doesn’t assume that the relationship must be zero-sum. We could have stronger democratic states and more efficient markets (consider Denmark). I’d also emphasize that states and markets are only two of a dozen or more important types of institution through which people exercise authority.

See also: should all institutions be democratic?against state-centric political theorythe right to strikeChina teaches the value of political pluralism; and why the deliberative democracy framework doesn’t quite work for me. And see Paul Dragos Aligica’s Institutional Diversity and Political Economy (Oxford, 2014) for a generally congruent view.

outline of a session on civic agency

This morning, I enjoyed working with an impressive group of Rwandan professionals (academics, clinicians and others). The outline of the session could work for other groups and is “open source”–available for anyone to borrow.

I open with my formula that a good citizen is someone who seriously asks “What should we do?” I have probably overdone this refrain–it’s in video form here and here–but I see value in it. Imposing the discipline of this question blocks the cheap path of discussing what should be done (by someone else). It forces us to notice which groups we belong to and how they work. And it emphasizes the value dimension (“should”), which is often evaded in a culture dominated by science and technical expertise.

So I ask people to talk about a range of issues that matter to them and try to impose the discipline of discussing only what we should do about each one.

I then argue that in order to ask, “What should we do?” we must belong to one or more functional groups that offer agency to their members. (I don’t see a clear maximum size to such groups, but responsiveness certainly becomes problematic at large scales.)

I usually ask about the groups that people belong to or have joined in the past that enable their members to ask the citizen’s fundamental question.

Groups address an enormous range of issues, from putting on an entertaining show to challenging the patriarchy. Any group will also face three categories of internal problems–challenges to its own survival and functioning that arise more or less regardless of the issues it addresses. I present these categories one at a time, and we talk about examples (and solutions) that have arisen in people’s experience. The categories are:

  1. Problems of collective action: how to get people to contribute attention, energy, and resources to the group rather than free-ride or drain value from it. Note that these problems arise even in groups that pay their employees and require and assess their performance. Even then, degrees of contribution still depend on the norms of the group. A relevant concept here is “social capital,” which I would define as the rules and practices that allow groups of people to function well together.
  2. Problems of discourse: how to make wise decisions about the “should” part of “What should we do?” in the face of disagreement and moral uncertainty. People disagree about values. In fact, premature consensus is a threat to wisdom. But how can we disagree in ways that prevent manipulation, misinformation, balkanization, faction, etc.? (Rwandans are a little unwilling to talk about deep disagreements, for reasons I understand, and I didn’t push the matter.)
  3. Problems of the we versus the them. Any group needs boundaries, or it cannot function, but how should it relate to those who don’t belong? What if a dominant group doesn’t want your kind to join it? Groups commonly face ethical questions about how to treat outsiders as well as strategic questions about how to force their way in when they are excluded from where they want to be.

See also: what should we do?what if something is not your problem?; and Ostrom, Habermas, and Gandhi are all we need.

notes on cultural appropriation after the royal wedding

In the current debate about “cultural appropriation,” I would offer these premises: everything is mixed, mixing is good, having your culture borrowed can give you more power, and demands for authenticity are problematic. Although I recognize exceptions and complications, we should start by welcoming “appropriation.”

I have not seen anyone complain that the recent royal wedding was an example of appropriation, and I’m interested in why not. After all, very rich white people incorporated African American culture into their ceremony, literally bringing it into their castle. It seems evident that Black American Christianity arrived in strength and confidence and made the whole ensemble much better than it would otherwise have been. That shows that you can’t judge an act of borrowing without looking closely; and often you will find it admirable.

The wedding was a mashup of English or British traditions with African American culture, the latter in the form of Bishop Michael Curry’s magnificent  sermon and the music (“Stand By Me” and “This Little Light of Mine”). But, like everything human beings do, it’s much more mixed than that. When Rev. Curry read, “Set me as a seal upon your heart, / as a seal upon your arm,” he was sharing his patrimony, a great text of his tradition. He chose the New Revised Standard translation, which subtly echoes the King James Version (particularly prized by African American preachers), which was commissioned by Prince Harry’s eponymous ancestor, James I of England. That Bible was basically an appropriation of the translation by the heretic/martyr William Tyndale, who knew Greek and Hebrew but seems to have read the Song of Songs in the Latin translation by St. Jerome (an Illyrian), who had translated the Greek Septuagint version (made in Egypt), which–in turn–translated the Hebrew original songs, which have parallels with Mesopotamian and Egyptian love poetry of the same era. The songs are attributed to Solomon, who loved the daughter of Pharaoh and “women of the Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Zidonians, and Hittites” (1 Kings 11). Solomon sang for all these nations. 

In other words, it’s all borrowing, as far as the eye can see. And not just on Rev. Curry’s side. Prince Harry is a British royal. If you trace his paternal line back a millennium, you reach Elimar I (1040-1112), the Count of Oldenburg in Saxony, from whom also descend the royal families of Russia, Greece, and Denmark, among others. Windsor Chapel was founded by a King of England of Viking descent whose motto was the Middle French phrase Honi soit qui mal y pense

I can’t resist noting that if you discuss “appropriation,” you are using a word derived from the Latin appropriare, which is first attested in the medical work of Caelius Aurelianus, who was an African man, a subject of Rome, best known from translating from Greek.

But doesn’t borrowing a cultural product mean taking it from the people who rightly hold it? Isn’t it therefore an act of power that benefits the taker?

Not necessarily, because culture isn’t zero-sum. Everyone can draw from the cultural commons. Jefferson said, “He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lites his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.”

Power is relevant, and it’s not OK to steal other people’s patrimony, like Napoleon carting off 695 Roman sculptures to fill the Louvre. But culture has power of its own, even when it’s set against guns and money.

Again, consider the juxtaposition of English aristocrats and African Americans at the recent wedding. There is no doubt that Black Americans face structural as well as intentional racism, in a pattern that extends across the Atlantic; Britain is implicated in it. White English people who are invited to a royal wedding are far more privileged than Americans of African descent.

But not more culturally powerful. Surely in our world of 7.6 billion, the 40 million Black Americans have some of the most “soft power.” Influence is currently flowing from Black America to places like Windsor Castle in a mighty stream.

One of the reasons is sheer excellence. I don’t think you can properly assess cultural transfer unless you are attuned to quality. Perhaps we should appreciate all the cultural traditions of the world for what they are, but there are great peaks as well as modest hills. The African American church is one of the mightiest ranges. It contributes theology, rhetoric, music, a political repertoire, and a distinctive moral vision to the whole world. Of course, it is made from a mixture of elements: so is everything human. But this mixture is particularly powerful. In the exquisite setting of a late-Gothic royal chapel, representatives of the traditions of the Black church added their unique voices and made the whole greater than the sum of its parts. There are excellent reasons not to call such moments “appropriation.”

See also: what is cultural appropriation?when is cultural appropriation good or bad?cultural mixing and powerMaoist chic as Orientalismeveryone unique, all connectedJesus was a person of color.

Bologna, Santiago de Cali, and Tulsa win Cities of Service’ first Engaged Cities Award

I enjoyed serving on the selection committee for Cities of Service’s inaugural Engaged Cities Award and reading many superb applications. The winners were announced today. From the announcement:

  • Bologna, Italy: Realizing that bureaucracy was hindering citizens’ ability to improve their city, Bologna adopted new regulations allowing residents to partner with the city to revitalize public spaces. The new regulations spurred the city to establish district laboratories, where city staff connected with residents to develop their ideas and co-design initiatives. The labs engaged thousands of residents and resulted in more than 400 citizen-led initiatives, including turning an abandoned market into a concert hall for hundreds of local musicians to play and converting a former parking garage into a full-service bike station run by a resident cooperative.
  • Santiago de Cali, Colombia: To combat a high level of violence, especially between neighbors, Santiago de Cali created local councils, made up of citizens in 15 city districts. The councils designed and implemented more than 200 community initiatives, including the rehabilitation of a number of public spaces that had been used for drug activity, dance classes for at-risk youth, and soccer tournaments involving local youth and former gang members. The citizen-led initiatives benefitted more than 15,000 residents, building trust and reducing conflict in their communities.
  • Tulsa, Oklahoma: Tulsa had hundreds of data sets that could help them grow per capita income, increase population, reduce violent crime, and address other challenges. But they did not have the capacity to analyze the data for insights it might provide. The city created teams of city staff, citizens, and nonprofit partners to examine city data and help the city address more than a dozen public problems. The teams have proposed a number of solutions, including a better method for prioritizing street repairs, a tool for citizens to collect much-needed blight data, and more.

Even as national politics is dysfunctional or repugnant in many countries, cities are hotbeds of innovation and are often simply well governed. This is a truth increasingly acknowledged–most recently by Jim and Deb Fallows in Our Towns–but it is both encouraging and interesting.

See also: engaging citizens in cities“A Tale of Two Cities”: comparing the best and worst cities for civic engagementthe rise of urban citizenship; and A New Model for Citizen Engagement.

support civics in Massachusetts #CivicsforMA #MAcivicsforall

Right now is a “virtual advocacy day” for Massachusetts S.2375, “an act to promote and enhance civic engagement. I’m doing my bit by blogging in support of the law–which will also need an adequate appropriation. The bill would:

  • Require that all public schools teach American history and civics education in accordance with the History and Social Science Curriculum Framework.
  •  Establish a “Civics Project Fund,” which shall be used by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) to implement the various requirements of the bill (including offering professional development and developing model curriculum). The fund will consist of appropriations and donated funds.
  • Mandate that every student in the Massachusetts public school system have the
    opportunity to participate in at least 2 student-led civics projects, at least one of which
    would be completed after 8th grade and would be a graduation requirement. Projects may be individual, small group, class-wide, or as part of required coursework.
  • Allow DESE, subject to resources, to establish regional civics councils to monitor and
    provide resources for civics education implementation throughout the commonwealth.
    DESE may also hold annual conventions for such regional councils to meet and assess
    the state of civics education, share best practices, and make recommendations to the
    Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE).
  • Require DESE, subject to resources, to create tools aligned with the History and Social
    Sciences Curriculum Framework to support districts in implementation .
  • Require DESE, subject to resources, to establish the “Edward Moore Kennedy and Edward William Brooke III Civics Challenge,” which shall be available to all eighth-grade public school students. Student participants will present civics projects for evaluation and recognition.
  • Direct the Secretary of the Commonwealth to establish a “High School Voter Challenge” in which every public high school may nominate one or more students to serve as voter outreach coordinators. Designated “high school voter challenge weeks” will be used to hold voter registration drives for students who are eligible to register or pre-register to vote. The Secretary will also be responsible for disseminating information to cities and towns to promote youth membership on municipal boards, committees and commissions.
  • Require BESE to provide opportunities for educators to receive professional development.
  • Require DESE to convene a commission to develop a proposal for the establishment of a civic education and public service program for Massachusetts youth.
  • Require DESE to conduct a study on the implementation of the act.

See also: the first “civic ed” bill: 1642my exchange with Beth Rubin about policy for civics; and new overview of civic education

where youth stand on the 2018 election

On April 30, Reuters drew attention with the headline, “Exclusive: Democrats lose ground with millennials – Reuters/Ipsos poll.” The basis was a pair of online surveys of more than 16,000 registered voters under age 35 conducted in 2016 and 2018. In the 2016 survey, a generic Democratic House candidate beat a generic Republican by 28 points (55%-27%). In the 2018 survey, the lead had narrowed to 18 points (46%-28%). Among White men under 35, the generic Democrat lost 11 points between these surveys, and the generic Republican gained 10 points, putting the Republican ahead among this demographic group.

It is important not to overstate the decline based on this single comparison. Democrats have held a consistent and substantial lead in generic House candidate surveys since 2017. According to Reuters’ own tracking poll, in the week ending May 6, 2018, a Democratic generic House candidate led a generic Republican by 24 points (44%-19.6%) among 18-29s. In contrast, Reuters is currently showing a Democratic lead of only 6.3 points for all adults.

Over the whole period since June 2017, the Democratic ticket has always led the Republican ticket among 18-29s, and there is no sign of decline. Among age groups, under-30s have been by far the most favorable to Democrats.

On the other hand, there is no question that young Americans view the Democratic Party brand with some skepticism, and this creates headwinds for candidates in 2018. Reuters reports that 34% of under-25s think that the Democrats have a better plan for the economy, but 32% prefer the Republicans’ plan–basically a tie. Even as surveys show young people becoming more likely to identify as “liberal,” they also show declining willingness to identify as Democrats (with most shifting to Independents).

Millennials first entered the electorate in significant numbers in 2008, and, despite the recession, a majority felt they were middle class that year. But the proportion who identified with the middle class slipped a bit in 2009 and then slumped dramatically in 2010, not yet to recover. In 2016 General Social Survey, just one third of Millennials placed themselves in the middle class. And according to CIRCLE’s survey conducted around that year, only 17 percent of Millennials felt that the “economic system in this country is basically fair to all Americans.”

Thus, even while the nation saw a long (if slow) economic recovery under President Obama, Millennials were experiencing a rapid drop out of the middle class and drawing negative conclusions about the economic system. Since 2017, unemployment has fallen, and it’s possible that surveys would show some improvement in Millennials’ sense of their own economic circumstances under President Trump.

I conclude:

  • Democrats must reach out to youth to capture the support of this constituency, which leans their way.
  • Republicans can reasonably expect to contest the youth vote, if they try.
  • Candidates should address a wide range of economic concerns, including but extending beyond college affordability.
  • Antipathy to Donald Trump is real, but Millennials need other reasons to support Democrats.

See also: the politics of student debtthe weakening bond between millennials and the middle classnew CIRCLE report on Millennials’ ideologyhow Millennials split on some key issues; and how talking about Millennials obscures injustice.

take a survey on civic education in the US

Would you be willing to take a survey that will help a new coalition expand and improve civic education in the USA? This coalition is led by iCivics, and many leaders in the field have already joined. I am part of this coalition.

The online survey will take less than 15 minutes to complete. It will ask you a few questions about who you are, how you personally relate to civic education, and what you think about the state of civic education today.

The survey will also lead you through an exercise called the “Five Whys.” You’ll be asked whether you think that we provide good enough civic education in the USA today. If you don’t think so, you’ll be asked “What is one reason that civic education is not good enough today?” You’ll suggest a reason, and then you’ll be asked why you think that reason exists. Next, you’ll be asked for a reason for that reason. This activity will continue until you have had a chance to offer a chain of five reasons.

This brainstorming exercise will allow a broad range of people to suggest underlying causes of unsatisfactory civic education. (Or you may argue that civic education is fine as it is.) Some people who take this survey will also be invited to take a second survey later on. The second survey will help us to organize and prioritize the causes.

If you wish to take the survey, this is the link:


It can be taken on a computer or a smartphone.

The survey begins with more information about the research and requests your consent to proceed. If you are under 18 years old, you must ask a parent or guardian also to give permission by typing his or her name in the form.

ambition: pro or con?

How should we think about ambition? Here are four possibilities:

  1. It’s basically a sin. According to the OED, “ambicioun” already appears in 1449 on a list of “vicis” (vices), right between “pride,” and “vein glorie.” It’s the selfish desire to extract credit, regardless of the merit of one’s act. If it motivates good action, then the action is good, but not the motive. It would have been better if the actor had been moved by something else. In that sense, it’s like greed, which can spur people to make valuable products but still discredits the actor.
  2. It’s a natural motivation that human beings just have, to various degrees. There’s not much point moralizing about it. What we should do is figure out how to channel it to good ends. For instance, in a well-functioning republic, people who have political ambitions must persuade the public, and that channels their ambitions to public ends. The analogy is not to “greed” (which is, by definition, a vice) but to ordinary financial motivations. It’s neither good nor bad that people want money; the question is whether the economy rewards good products and services.
  3. It’s not an appropriate category for ethical assessment because it’s really two or more different things. There is the ambition to make the world a better place and be recognized for it, which is honorable. And there’s the ambition just to be famous or powerful, which is pernicious. Much as we can distinguish agape from lust as two of the many forms of love, so we should divide ambition into varieties and then assess them separately.
  4. It’s a good thing. John Adams observed, “Wherever men, women, or children are to be found, whether they be old or young, rich or poor, high or low . . . ignorant or learned, every individual is seen to be strongly actuated by a desire to be seen, heard, talked of, approved and respected by the people about him and within his knowledge.” Hannah Arendt quotes this passage approvingly because, in general, she admires human beings who step into the public sphere to be “seen, heard, talked of, approved and respected.” That is not merely a motivation to do a good job; it is part-and-parcel of being a public figure, which is a worthy way of life. By exercising ambition, you become a persona of history, as in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton: 

I may not live to see our glory!
But I will gladly join the fight!
And when our children tell our story…
They’ll tell the story of tonight.

I leave it to anyone who’s interested to choose among these four options or to come up with other ones. I would, however, make a couple of observations.

First, I am generally skeptical about the kind of move made in #3 above, the casuistic division of widely-used concepts into subcategories. The problem is that very often there’s something important left over when you try to make the split. For example, love is not necessarily good. Many cases of love are harmful. But the fact that love is often good (or even wonderful) necessarily colors even the bad cases, and vice-verse. Instead of trying to divide love into sharply distinct forms–romantic love, brotherly love, lust, self-love, etc. and judging each one as a category–it’s better to say that love can always be good or bad, or a bit of both. I delved deeply into this obscure issue in my book on Dante, because Dante envisions the afterworld as a system for categorizing types of love–all the way from Satan to God–yet he also sees the echoes of the good love in the bad.

Second, an anti-democratic prejudice may underlie some of the criticisms of ambition. The word comes from the Latin ambitio, which originally just meant “going around.” According to Lewis and Short’s Latin Dictionary (courtesy of Tufts’ Project Perseus), the word came to mean “the going about of candidates for office in Rome, and the soliciting of individual citizens for their vote, a canvassing, suing for office (by just and lawful means).” From there, it gained the sense of “a striving for one’s favor or good-will; an excessive desire to please, flattery, adulation.”

Ambitio translated the Greek word eritheia, which (per Thayer’s Greek Lexicon) was “used of those who electioneer for office, courting popular applause by trickery and low arts,” AristotlePolitics 5, 3. From there, it came into the Greek New Testament to mean, “courting distinction, a desire to put oneself forward, a partisan and factious spirit which does not disdain low arts; partisanship, factiousness”: James 3:14, 16. No wonder Thomas Nashe (1593) defined the English word ambition as “any puft vp greedy humour of honour or preferment.”

This etymology reflects cynicism about the act of “going around” if you’re looking for votes. But we want people to do that. In ancient times, the main critics of seeking popular support were elitists who preferred rule by aristocrats. Almost by definition, an aristocrat is one who does not have to strive for favor or good-will, because he is just “best.” Neither Aristotle nor the New Testament makes a positive case for democratic politics.

The question is whether this etymology is rooted in a problematic elitism. In that case, we should at least be open to Arendt’s positive view.

See also: Arendt, freedom, TrumpHannah Arendt and Lin-Manuel Mirandataking satisfaction from politics in the face of injustice

article about the Civic Studies major

“Civic Studies Major Begins in the Fall: The new program will combine academics and civic engagement,” by Helene Ragovin in Tufts Now:

Since the university’s founding, civic engagement and rigorous academics have been “deeply embedded in Tufts’ DNA,” says Tisch College’s Peter Levine. Now a new civic studies major in the School of Arts and Sciences continues that tradition.

The faculty of Arts and Sciences in March approved the program, which will begin in the fall 2018 semester. It will combine the experiential component of community internships—a hallmark of the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life—and the scholarship from the emerging discipline of civic studies. It is believed to be the first program of its kind at a university.

“While a lot of colleges have programs and encourage being civically engaged, there are no majors that are as academically centered as this one,” said Levine, the associate dean for research and Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tisch College. “With civic studies as a major piece of what we offer, it furthers our goal of making Tufts the best in the world for civic education.”

Levine, along with Erin Kelly, associate professor and chair of philosophy, and Ioannis Evrigenis, professor of political science, will teach the introductory course for the subject. Levine said Kelly was a key player in establishing the new program and shepherding it through the approval process. Levine and Kelly will be the program directors.

Civic studies is an interdisciplinary program, and students will be required to take it as a double-major, along with another discipline from Arts and Sciences. The major will require eleven courses, including the introductory course, an internship, and a capstone seminar. The other courses must be distributed among the following themes: thinking about justice; social conflict and violence; civic action and social movements; and civic skills. The courses draw from departments such as political science, history, sociology, psychology, and community health, among others.

The establishment of civic studies as an intellectual movement dates back about a decade, when several scholars issued a framing statement that has since become the blueprint for the discipline, Levine said. This liberal arts perspective marries well with the goals of Tisch College, he said.

“For nearly twenty years, Tisch College has been deeply engaged in trying to educate all Tufts students for civic life. Now our ambitions have become more and more academic, and we are increasingly supporting classroom learning. Civic studies is the next step,” he added. “Civic studies focuses on critical reflection, ethical thinking, and action for social change within and between societies,” he said.

The new major fills the space left by the former peace and justice studies major in A&S, Levine said. There will be an optional peace and justice track within civic studies, and peace and justice will also still be available as an A&S minor. Peace and justice students were consulted as the new major was being developed, Levine said, as were faculty in A&S departments that could be seen as “complementary or competitive” with civic studies. “We didn’t want to have a new major that would compete with something we already have,” Levine said. Other department chairs supported the proposal, he said.

Gandhi on the primacy of means over ends

I don’t think that Gandhi really said, “Be the change you want to see in the world,” but he did hold a challenging view of the relationship between means (or strategies) and ends. “Be the change” could serve as a shorthand for his view, if it’s properly understood. It’s not about individual lifestyle choices but about social and cultural transformation.

Since the 1960s in the English-speaking world, political philosophy has focused on defining justice, understood as an end-state, a goal. Political ethics then involves a set of questions about whether various means (e.g., civil disobedience, misinformation, compromise, or violence) are acceptable–or necessary–when pursuing justice under various circumstances.

A century ago, as Karuna Mantena notes, there was a more vibrant debate about political means.[1] The central question was not what constituted justice but whether and when to use party politics and elections, strikes, boycotts, assassinations, or revolutions, among other options. Mantena reads Gandhi as a participant in that debate who developed and defended nonviolence as a cluster of strategies. Moreover, Gandhi explicitly argued that the best way to think about politics was to determine the right means or strategies, not to pretend to define justice.

“Means are after all everything,” Gandhi wrote, in response to a group of Indian political leaders who had issued an “Appeal to the Nation” in 1924. These leaders had proposed a concrete ideal of justice: the immediate creation of a new, independent “Federated Republic of the United States of India.” They argued that this end justified a wide range of strategies. They wanted to “delete the words ‘by peaceful and legitimate means’ from the Congress creed, so that men holding every shade of opinion may have no difficulty in joining” the independence struggle.

Gandhi replied that these leaders had no right to define an abstract concept of justice, such as “independence,” by themselves. The “only universal definition to give it is ‘that status of India which her people desire at a given moment.’” Furthermore, the means used to pursue swaraj (independence, in its deepest sense) had to be good. “As the means so the end. Violent means will give violent swaraj. That would be a menace to the world and to India herself.”[2]

Drawing on Mantena, I would suggest the following Gandhian reasons to focus on means rather than ends. Human beings are cognitively limited and cannot see justice far beyond our own present circumstances. Human beings are motivationally flawed and highly susceptible to various distorting and destructive impulses. Therefore, we must choose modes of politics that channel our impulses in beneficial rather than harmful directions. Forming too sharp a definition of justice (or any of its components, such as national independence) can simply excuse destructive behavior. Consequences are always difficult to predict and control, and trying to pursue elaborate ends is foolish. Finally, how we participate in politics helps to constitute the world. By acting, we don’t merely bring about a result (usually an unpredictable one); we immediately create a new reality just in virtue of our action.

For example, one of Gandhi’s strategies was the khadi campaign: a mass effort to boycott European cloth, wear only homespun Indian khadi cloth, and enlist everyone–of all classes–in personally spinning and weaving their own clothes. The khadi campaign is widely understood as a means to one of the following ends: political independence from Britain through economic pressure, rural economic development, or spiritual education for those who spun.

Gandhi thought of it differently.[3] It was impossible to know whether khadi would affect British policy, but an India full of people who wove their own clothes in the cause of independence would immediately be a different place. It would be more decentralized, equitable, ruminative, united, and free. “Through khadi we teach people the art of civil obedience to an institution which they have built up for themselves.”[4]  Khadi was educational, but equally important, it represented an institution that the people had built. Education wasn’t an outcome of spinning, as knowledge might be an outcome of schooling. In khadi, the learning was intrinsic to what Gandhi explicitly called the “public work” of building a new system for textile-production. Gandhi described the political work accomplished by a committee and the “constructive work” of weaving in the same passage, as part of the same struggle. Physical production was an essential component because “awareness is possible only through public work and not through talks.”[5]

For Gandhi, “What is justice?” was the wrong question. Our focus should be on forming groups of people who interact in ways that bring out the best in them. He saw a nation of home-weavers as such a group. We could certainly debate his specific vision of a khadi campaign, but the same general approach can take many forms. For example, Jürgen Habermas represents a dramatically different cultural context and political sensibility from Gandhi’s, but he also rejects instrumental, means/ends reasoning in favor of creating groups of people who endlessly make justice by interacting. It’s just that Habermas’ interactive groups are highly critical, explicit, and discursive, whereas Gandhi’s weavers may be literally silent.

See also: notes on the metaphysics of Gandhi and KingHabermas, Ostrom, Gandhi (II)against state-centric political theoryno justice, no peace? (on the relationship between these concepts)the I and the we: civic insights from Christian theologythe right to strike; and the kind of sacrifice required in nonviolence.


[1] Karuna Mantena, “Gandhi and the Means-Ends Question in Politics,” Institute for Advanced Study School of Social Science Paper 46 (June 2012).
[2] Gandhi, Notes,  May 22, 1924-August 15, 1924, in The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi (Electronic Book), New Delhi, Publications Division Government of India, 1999, 98 volumes, vol. 28, pp. 307-310, I owe the reference to Karuna Mantena, “Another Realism, the Politics of Gandhian Nonviolence,” American Political Science Review, vol. 106, no. 2 (May 2012), p. 457
[3] See Mantena, “Gandhi and the Means-Ends Question in Politics,” pp. 9-12.
[4] Gandhi interviewed by Nirmal Kumar Bose, Nov. 9-10, 1934, in The Collected Works, vol. 65, p. 317. I owe the reference to Mantena, “Gandhi and the Means-Ends Question in Politics,” p. 9.
[5] Gandhi, personal note (1925), in The Collected Works, vol. 32, 262-3. I owe this reference to Mantena, “Gandhi and the Means-Ends Question in Politics,” p.11.