Recommended Reading: Two Theories of Change

Two Theories of Change
Published: May 24, 2010 on

David Brooks

When I was in college I took a course in the Enlightenment. In those days, when people spoke of the Enlightenment, they usually meant the French Enlightenment — thinkers like Descartes, Rousseau, Voltaire and Condorcet.

These were philosophers who confronted a world of superstition and feudalism and sought to expose it to the clarifying light of reason. Inspired by the scientific revolution, they had great faith in the power of individual reason to detect error and logically arrive at universal truth.

Their great model was Descartes. He aimed to begin human understanding anew. He’d discard the accumulated prejudices of the past and build from the ground up, erecting one logical certainty upon another.

What Descartes was doing for knowledge, others would do for politics: sweep away the old precedents and write new constitutions based on reason. This was the aim of the French Revolution.

But there wasn’t just one Enlightenment, headquartered in France. There was another, headquartered in Scotland and Britain and led by David Hume, Adam Smith and Edmund Burke. As Gertrude Himmelfarb wrote in her 2004 book, “The Roads to Modernity,” if the members of the French Enlightenment focused on the power of reason, members of the British Enlightenment emphasized its limits.

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4 thoughts on “Recommended Reading: Two Theories of Change

  1. I like David, read most of his comments, and listen to his commentary on The News Hour; but I don’t think he knows philosophy well enough to offer advice or alleged clarity.

  2. History doesn’t generally wait for philosophers.

    Whether a gradual evolution or a radical revolution befalls a civilization will depend on a myriad of factors but all will in some way lead back to this:

    Are its systems of decision able to keep up with changing circumstances?

    Paradoxically, it’s the desire for stability that most assuredly leads to revolution. Stagnation breeds it. Living systems (like civilizations) are healthiest in a state of ‘criticality’, which is a delicate balance between a stagnant order vs. a chaotic collapse.

    Democratic structures are intended as methods for encouraging essentially continuous, peaceful revolution to maintain that delicate balance. But these structures themselves need continual attention. Because inevitably there develop entrenched interests favoring a status-quo who will game whatever system is in place.

    In simplest terms, as I stated in a post almost two years ago:

    Capability ENABLES Responsibility

    “A Citizen’s responsibility in an area is directly proportional to his or her ability to have an effect. Without improvement in mechanisms of meaningful involvement, we will see a continued growth in apathy, frustration and ultimately a resort to less healthy forms of expression.”

    For political parties or a government to try to convince me that they really want that necessary ‘criticality’… that truly creative tumult…

    They’re going to have to be serious about wanting citizen involvement.

    Democracy is Personal.

    The fault lies not in our stars… but in ourselves.

    Build the tools necessary.
    Facilitate the citizen’s ability in the public square.

    (Enabling networked Citizen lobbying is essential and doable. I’m unclear about what we’re waiting for? And its not the only needed step.

    e.g. According to the CRP, the finance, insurance, and real estate sectors — those that would be regulated by the financial reform bill — showered $2.3 billion onto candidates, leadership PACs, and party committees since 1989…

    WOW… that’s about $115 million every year!

    Well, that works out to about $1 per year per registered voter. Doesn’t sound like so much then does it. That’s because most people don’t comprehend scale very well. It’s not that all the voters would get together every year to give $1 to some ‘anti-finance’ bloc…

    Its that technical systems can and must allow for the same kind of scaled response to political issues which organized economic interests enjoy (with much more granularity than our two parties prefer you to involve yourselves with).

    Would this be the kind of innovation Ayn Rand would support? Wasn’t it the level playing field that the U.S. offered that so attracted her and inspired its citizens? And wasn’t it the stagnation of Russian society that provoked its disastrous revolution. A revolution that only replaced one oligarchy with another.

    Evolution requires tools.
    Revolution only requires inertia.

    (So far inertia is way ahead.)

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