A lot of people talk about changing society, yet the more I learn about society the more I wonder what it is they actually have in mind. It is quite clear that trying to find the controls as though society were some sort of an ocean liner is very naive. On the other hand, the more I know about society, the more I believe that society really does need to be changed. Mostly it is our beliefs about society that need to be changed. And when we change our beliefs, society is going to change.
So what Iím most interested in these days is participating in a reshaping of the conversation that our culture is involved in now. I donít have much use for the attitude that doesnít think there is any importance to what we believe. There are some people who have adopted a hardened, cynical attitude that holds that what is said in public can only be counted on to be false. That is a very sad state of affairs. Beliefs are a big part of accountability. We canít really measure how weíre doing unless we are clear what it is that we believe needs to happen. If there is no real consonance between what is said and what is done, we are in a collective state of mind that very much parallels depression on a personal level. While there may at least be a certain amount of integrity exhibited in the refusal to pretend, and while it is understandable that so many donít see anything but a choice between pretending and rejecting the pretence, eventually we need to examine how to restore the lost trust.
Perhaps we should pay a lot more attention to the question of why it takes so much courage to live up to our highest ideals. One obvious answer is that living truthfully is a threat to the status quo. That is really what I think is mostly going on with all of this. Of course, there are a lot of people who donít really believe what they say they believe, but Iím thinking more about the people who have a hard time finding the courage to carry out what they profess as their beliefs. Fear distorts everything. Fear isnít doing any of us any good. If the only thing that we could accomplish was that a lot more people acted less out of fear, the world would be a whole lot better place. And the world would change. For one thing, a world without fear would no longer be a safe place for tyranny.
A thought experiment I like to participate in is wondering what kind of world this would be if people lived more in accordance with their stated ideals. There are two very valuable things that would come out of this. We would have to revise some of our beliefs, and we would have to change some of how we do things. I would actually welcome both of these developments. First, the world would very likely become a much better place. And second, we would all get to see which of our beliefs we need to let go of. As long as we keep our highest ideals stashed away as in a museum, they never get tested. They may not in fact be able to stand the test of being put into service. If that is the case we are better off without them.
The question of values doesnít really have any meaning unless there is a commitment to the means by which those values can hold some sway. Indeed there seems to be a preference on many peopleís part for values that donít require much of a personal commitment. They are values that either operate largely in the realm of abstraction or are more about what someone else needs to be doing than what the holder of the values needs to be doing.
As Iíve already said, the main thing we need to do is get rid of the fear. That is a tall order. We have to deal with peopleís fear of doing away with fear. A lot of people canít seem to conceive of society without fear serving as a major means of crowd control. One of the ironies of this is that the way faith is often talked about leads away rather than toward a solution in this. That is clearly not the way it should be. Faith is the solution to fear, so whatever it is that is being used to fuel fear is not faith at all.
A big part of the problem all the way around is passivity. One of the biggest problems I have with the economic situation that I see shaping up these days is that a lot of people seem to be being rendered superfluous. I donít see that problem being solved any other way besides more people grasping that they need to break out of their state of compliance. This may not be as serious a problem as starvation or grinding poverty, but there is no point in comparing where we are now to past economic situations. If there is some human misery that we can do something about, that seems to be as much a legitimate function of the economy as allowing the really rich to get even richer.
This is very much in line with the contributions of Amartya Sen. There is a link between political freedom and economic well being. Sen says conventional thinking gets it a little backwards. Wealth building comes more out of a context of freedom than the other way around. It moves in both directions, but democracy promotes prosperity far more than the other way around. That may even be empirically observable with the naked eye. I have a sense that democracy has produced more prosperity in places like India than prosperity has promoted democracy in places like the US. I would also say that democracy is a big part of why the US is so wealthy. There is a high correlation among nations between wealth and democracy. A lot of people are very confused about this. The main thing is to not see them as separate realities.
And we need to be very clear that while maintaining a free society is not without its economic costs, freedom represents a net gain. Mainly this way of thinking needs to be used to counter much of the rhetoric of self proclaimed business advocates. There is a lot of fear in what they are saying. What kind of world would result from a lot fewer people buying into that fear?