Anarchy 85/Meliorism

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“My contention is that one has to weigh
the special cir­cum­stan­ces of each case, and cannot safely guide one’s conduct by hard-and-fast rules which know nothing of the cir­cum­stan­ces or charac­ter of the people concerned. Surely the duty of man is not to do what he can’t, but to do the best he can; and I believe that, by adop­ting ab­stract rules never to do this or that, never to use force, or money, or support a Govern­ment, or go to war, and by encum­ber­ing our con­scien­ces with line upon line and precept upon precept, we become less likely to behave reason­ably and rightly than if we atten­ded more to those next steps, the wisdom of which can be tested in daily life …”
<span data-html="true" class="plainlinks" title="Wikipedia: aylmer maude">aylmer maude, in criticism of Leo Tolstoy.  



This talk is a plea for a revi­sion of the re­ceived liber­ta­rian atti­tude to melio­rism. By melio­rism I under­stand at­tempts to remedy or reform speci­fic grie­vances or defects in a demo­cra­tic society. Some of what I have to say arose out of re­flec­ting on a book of essays by Paul Goodman.[1] However this is not a paper on Goodman. I’ll refer to his views at the outset and also make exem­plary use of his work in some places. But my main interest is in pos­sible liber­ta­rian reac­tions to him, and beyond that, in the stan­dard liber­ta­rian atti­tude to melio­rism.

  Goodman calls himself a “utopian socio­lo­gist”, meaning of course to be iro­ni­cal. He is a self-confessed prag­ma­tist, strongly inter­ested in prac­tical goals and in getting things done. Al­though at heart he is a social critic, his avowed inten­tion is to combine des­truc­tive criti­cism with posi­tive pro­posals whose accep­tance would improve the object of criti­cism or even replace it alto­gether with some­thing better.

  “I seem to be able to write only prac­ti­cally, inven­ting expe­di­ents. … My way of writing a book of social theory has been to invent com­munity plans. My psy­cho­logy is a manual of thera­peu­tic exer­cises. A liter­ary study is a manual of prac­tical criti­cism. A dis­cus­sion of human nature is a program of peda­gogi­cal and poli­tical reforms. This present book is no excep­tion. It is social criti­cism, but almost in­vari­ably (except in moments of indig­na­tion) I find that I know what I don’t like only by con­trast with some con­crete pro­posal that makes more sense.”

  Goodman is not in the tradi­tion of 18th and 19th century refor­mers who were ob­sessed with the idea of a Grand Plan to cure all ills of mankind at one stroke and forever. His thought is there­fore not to be com­pared to clas­sical anar­chism, for he seems inter­ested solely in piece­meal reforms and changes. In modern American society thin­king men are faced with a moral di­lemma:

  “It is only by the usual tech­nolo­gical and orga­nisa­tio­nal proce­dures
that any­thing can be accom­plished. But with these proce­dures, and the motives and perso­nali­ties that belong to them, fresh ini­tia­tive is dis­cou­raged and funda­men­tal change is pre­ven­ted.”

  Goodman rejects the general vali­dity of the premi­ses from which this pes­simis­tic con­clu­sion is drawn. He believes that the short­comings and defects of the society in which he lives are in part due not to the absence of better alter­na­tives but to an un­wil­ling­ness seri­ously to con­sider and accept certain poli­cies—the poli­cies to which he gives the friend­ly-ironic label “utopian”. This un­wil­ling­ness is itself not an alto­gether un­change­able, rock-hard social fact on Good­man’s view. Resis­tance to novelty or to propo­sals which are or seem radical and dis­tur­bing, can itself be studied and under­stood, and some­times over­come. Goodman, conscious that all is not for the best in the best of all pos­sible worlds, be­lieves that “some­thing can be done about it”. He thinks that there exist means which, without being self-defea­ting, are apt to further modest but conse­quen­tial ends. He calls them “expe­di­ents”, and reminds us of Goethe’s objec­tive: “just to live on a little”. The con­trast with Marxist-historicist beliefs in the impos­sibi­lity of reform within capi­ta­lism could hardly be more complete.

  How do liber­ta­rians react to all this? Dif­feren­ces of inte­rest between Goodman and liber­ta­rians are obvious enough. He is much more catholic in his inte­rests that we are. He is con­cerned with town and com­mu­nity plan­ning, with the aes­the­tic quality of life and the sur­rounds of acti­vi­ties; he is inte­res­ted in the tech­no­logy and admi­nis­tra­tion of edu­ca­tion; in voca­tio­nal gui­dance; in psy­cho­the­rapy; in youth camps; and in many other things which to the liber­tarian-in-the-street are either so many un­knowns or else hobbies to be pursued unof­fi­cial­ly. Some of his pre­occu­pa­tions are then ab initio quite un­like­ly to arouse much enthu­siasm in our quar­ters. Never­the­less we should not over­stress the dif­feren­ces. For Goodman is among other things an anti-mili­ta­rist, a critic of super­sti­tious ide­olo­gies, an advo­cate of sexual freedom and of freedom of ex­pres­sion. We do have a lot in common with what ani­mates the man. In any case if this were less true, liber­ta­rians, in view of their social theory, would still have to accept and meet the chal­lenge of defi­ning their atti­tude to a re­for­mer of the Goodman mould. We can hardly ignore him just because his inte­rests differ from ours on many points.

  I envi­sage the stan­dard liber­ta­rian res­ponse to Goodman as an ap­plica­tion to a parti­cular case of our general doc­trine of anti-refor­mism. Thus I expect most liber­ta­rians would be cri­ti­cal of Good­man’s style of thin­king, his prag­ma­tism. And I do not mean here criti­cism of his ex­ces­ses, his occa­sio­nal blun­ders and over-all super­fici­ality. I meen a deep-seated aver­sion. The reasons for this aver­sion fall into three rough cate­go­ries. (1) There is the thought that melio­rism is inef­fec­tive: it regu­lar­ly or cha­rac­teris­ti­cally fails of its
inten­ded effects, espe­cial­ly when the inten­ded effects are genu­inely liberal. (2) In addi­tion to inef­fec­tive­ness and perhaps more impor­tant than it, melio­rism regu­larly gene­rates unin­ten­ded and unwan­ted effects which blight the hope of refor­mers to have achieved a net im­prove­ment in the world by their efforts. (3) Finally, the result of melio­rism will be confu­sion in the mind and beha­viour of the refor­mer: his ends, being in con­flict, will fall into dis­array, and it is pre­dic­table that in such an even­tua­lity he will let go of his liberal inten­tions before letting go of his prac­tical stri­vings.

  Let me con­sider these points in turn (and not just with special refe­rence to Goodman). My general line will be to suggest that these criti­cisms are seve­rally over­stated and exag­ge­rated, and that the anti-melio­rism to which they add up is there­fore too indis­crimi­nate.

  In consi­der­ing the charge of inef­fec­tive­ness (utopi­anism in the un­friend­ly sense) we should dis­tin­guish the tech­ni­cal impos­sibi­lity of pro­posed poli­cies from their un­suit­abi­lity to the audi­ence. By tech­nical impos­sibi­lity I mean that there are, at the time and place in ques­tion, no phy­si­cal, tech­nolo­gical, or eco­nomic means to the ends envi­saged, nor are there any means to the means. Defects under the second heading include the fol­low­ing:

  There is no (effec­tive) audi­ence, e.g. Domain oratory.

  It is the wrong (irre­le­vant, impo­tent) audi­ence. Goodman himself pro­vides the example: there is some­thing dis­tinct­ly odd about propa­ganda for civic and poli­tical pro­po­sals being dis­semi­nated in lite­rary jour­nals.

  There are reasons to believe that the Policy is not accep­table to the (right) audi­ence.

  It would be patent­ly absurd to argue that all pro­po­sals for reform are tech­nical­ly im­pos­sible. Most of them, at any rate most of those nowa­days put forward by radi­cals, dis­sen­ters, libe­rals and demo­cra­tic socia­lists in our times are not in this class. In any case there is no ratio­nal way of judging the matter a priori. The pos­sibi­lity or impos­sibi­lity of pro­po­sals must be as­ses­sed as they came up, in the light of the situ­ation to which they are meant to apply. Some­what more guar­dedly the same can be said about the unac­cep­tabi­lity of meli­orist pro­po­sals. Whether a policy is or is not ac­cep­table is some­times a more or less open ques­tion which can be set­tled con­clu­sive­ly only by putting the policy forward and seeing the public reac­tion. (Goodman implies this when he calls his utopian pro­po­sals “hypo­the­ses”.) Pre­scin­ding from ques­tions of un­cer­tain­ty, there is a second point to be made here. Suppose a pro­posal passes all reaso­nable tests, other than accep­tabi­lity to the appro­pri­ate audi­ence. Is advo­cacy of such a policy un­realis­tic simply because it is not imme­idate­ly accep­table to those con­cerned? The answer is not always yes. If the policy in ques­tion is not of the now-or-never type, if, that is, imme­di­ate accep­tance and imple­menta­tion is not of its essence, then even if it is now unac­cep­table there may be some point to advo­ca­ting the policy despite oppo­si­tion or indif­fe­rence.

  Through advoca­ting the policy at a certain time, some analogy
to it, or some part of it, may become more proba­ble than other­wise, espe­cial­ly at some subse­quent time. We know that many piece­meal changes are the result of the cumu­la­tive impact of advo­cacy (and other things) spread over a period. Nor is it neces­sary that these effects of one’s advo­cacy should be exactly calcu­lable.

  Inasmuch as the inac­cepta­biliy of a policy is based on reasons, the advocacy may lower the initial inac­capta­biliy. The advocacy of poli­cies may have an educa­tio­nal effect.

  Advoca­ting a policy in public may dis­close more pre­cisely the obsta­cles to it. Fre­quent­ly the refor­mer or would-be refor­mer starts off with guesses about the accep­tabi­lity of his schemes, and he may test his guesses with advo­cacy. The insti­tu­tions and social forces of our envi­ron­ment are not always trans­pa­rent in their work­ings, some­times we can find out their res­pon­ses only by stimu­la­ting them.

  Finally, take a policy which is other­wise futile in the fore­see­able future. Such a policy just by being “on the books” may serve as an ideal or stan­dard by which to judge and evaluate actual or pro­posed alter­na­tives. (This might be the resi­dual truth in Oscar Wilde’s maxim on Utopia.)

  Enough has been said, I hope, to show that the slogan “Reform is always inef­fec­tive” will not serve as an ade­quate basis for a general con­demna­tion of melio­rism.

  John Anderson claimed that

“… the well-inten­tioned reformer always pro­duces results which he did not anti­ci­pate, helps on tenden­cies to which he is avow­edly opposed.”[2]

Perhaps this claim is true, but only in a sense too wide to be useful. All social action may have incal­cu­lable conse­quen­ces but what we want to know, in the present context, is whether meli­orist action is espe­cially prone to have such side-effects. Protest, after all, can and some times does have un­planned and un­wel­come out­comes, for in­stance the streng­the­ning of repres­sive laws, but this fact cannot seri­ously be taken as a global objec­tion to pro­tes­ting. I don’t think the posi­tion of refor­mers is essen­tial­ly dif­fer­ent from that of pro­tes­ters, al­though there may be dif­feren­ces of degree. There is perhaps more risk in promo­ting reforms: it is more calcu­lable that reforms will have incal­cula­ble effects than it is that pro­tests will. The degree of risk will depend on the sort of plans advo­cated, the times and places and styles of advo­cacy, and other factors. A great deal of dif­fer­ence is made by these details. That is why the argu­ment from unin­ten­ded effects is not a knock-down argu­ment against melio­rism.

  There are two spe­cifi­cally liber­ta­rian argu­ments to be looked at under the heading of unin­ten­ded conse­quen­ces. First, it will be said that the method of imple­men­ting plans of social reform is itself essen­tially “poli­tical”, invol­ving com­pro­mises, unsa­voury alli­ances, and so on. Second, the refor­mer is obliged, as soon as he meets with the sligh­test resis­tance, to lean in an autho­rita­rian direc­tion; to become
a meddler who, out of igno­rance or righ­teous­ness, is in­clined to impose his con­cep­tion of what is desi­rable.

  That the method of effec­tive plans is poli­tical, invol­ving com­pro­mises and com­mit­ments to allies not quite kosher, is often the case, and fore­see­ably so. Whether it is always a suf­fi­cient reason for liber­ta­rians to reject the action which entails com­pro­mises is another ques­tion. To me the issue is much more a matter of degree than pre­ser­ving the purity of an abso­lute prin­ciple. In some cir­cum­stan­ces, for some ends, one may weigh the likely cost of com­promi­sing against other factors, and come down on the side of action. Two obser­va­tions are rele­vant here. (1) Liber­tari­anism is not a “single value” ethic as it has some­times been made out to be. Freedom or anti-autho­rita­ria­nism looms large in our thoughts but it is not the only consi­dera­tion. (I think, for example, that the crucial objec­tions to racial dis­crimi­na­tion which liber­ta­rians share with others have little to do with liberty and much with justice.) Now con­flict between various liber­ta­rian goods is, pace Anderson, pos­si­ble: fre­quent­ly reforms pose a chal­lenge to evalu­ate con­flic­ting ends. (2) Apart from this, even issues of freedom can lead to con­flict of ends which require com­pro­mise and adju­dica­tion. To set one’s face “on prin­ciple” against the very pos­sibi­lity of com­pro­mise is dog­ma­tic. I suggest that these theo­reti­cal consi­dera­tions are recog­nised, in a back­han­ded way, in liber­ta­rian prac­tice, al­though they have no place in our expli­cit doc­trine. It has long been our habit to pick and choose issues and situa­tions on or in which to speak and act, and it fre­quent­ly happens, more and more of late, that the whole move­ment lapses into long periods of inac­ti­vity for want of the right issue. I diag­nose this inter­mit­tent exis­tence as due in part to a fear of com­pro­mise which is obses­sive, a horror of soiling one’s poli­tical purity. The mistake, if it is a mistake, lies not in the world for being too unkind to us, but in us for being too in­flex­ible and paying too much atten­tion to gene­rali­ties and too little to the parti­cu­lars of actual situa­tions.

  The refor­mer is a meddler, tempted by autho­rita­rian means and often suc­cumb­ing to the temp­ta­tion. This is also true very often. Again, it is not neces­sa­rily true of all melio­rists. Hear, for example, Goodman on the grounds of his selec­tion of the fields in which he pro­poses expe­di­ents:

  “… charac­teris­ti­cally, I choose subjects that are poli­tical, perso­nal, or lite­rary prob­lems of practice. … And the prob­lems are my prob­lems. As a writer I am ham­pered by the present laws on porno­gra­phy, and as a man and a father by the sexual climate of that law; so it is a problem for me. It is as a New Yorker that I propose to ban the cars from the streets and create a city of neigh­bor­hoods. As an intel­lec­tual man thwar­ted, I write on the inhi­bi­tion of grief and anger and look for a therapy to un­block them. And it is because I am hungry for the beauty of a prac­tical and scien­tific envi­ron­ment that I am dis­mayed by our ‘applied science’ and would like to explain it away.”

  “… the content of my own ‘arbi­trary’ propo­sals is deter­mined by my own justi­fied con­cerns. I propose what I know to be my busi­ness.
These are defi­nite and fairly modest aims; whether or not they are prac­tica­ble remains to be seen.”[3]

This does not sound like a meddler spea­king. Yet it may be said that to the extent to which Goodman shows us a clean pair of hands, just to that extent he is inef­fec­tive and bound to remain so. For prac­tical success re­quires that the refor­mer should work with and through insti­tu­tions and seats of power (govern­ment, civic autho­ri­ties, busi­ness, parties, trade unions, etc.). In accep­ting these insti­tu­tions as part of his means the refor­mer is also accep­ting their cha­rac­teris­tic ways of working which is autho­rita­rian. In miti­ga­tion of this one can answer:

  That some refor­mers (e.g. Goodman) show great aware­ness of the dif­ficul­ties and are looking, more hope­fully than suc­cess­fully, for alter­na­tives.

  There is a big dif­fer­ence between the State and other insti­tu­tions, as we have always empha­sised.

  There is finally no reason to assume that every poli­tical act which is chan­nelled through the State must be autho­rita­rian in its net effects. (I’ll bring up some exam­ples later.)

  Now to the third objec­tion to melio­rism which was that the liberal impulse behind reform acti­vi­ties becomes cor­rup­ted in the very course of these acti­vi­ties. Means do not currupt ends, or those whose ends they are, auto­mati­cally or mecha­ni­cally. Social and psycho­logi­cal causa­tion is more subtle than that. If the atti­tude of those advo­ca­ting some reform is a reaso­nable mean between two ex­tremes, it is at least pos­sible to embark on a course of action without being com­mit­ted to seeing it through no matter what. The ex­tremes are blindly opti­mis­tic faith in the power of Reason on the one hand, and a fe­tish­istic pre­con­cep­tion about ines­capa­ble cor­rup­tion on the other. A more ratio­nal atti­tude may be located in between. If cir­cum­stan­ces change so should designs, inten­tions and deter­mina­tions. What looks desi­rable or feasi­ble at one stage, say at the stage of con­tem­pla­ted action, may change at another, and become through new deve­lop­ments, less desi­rable, more messy. Then we may con­sider getting off the bus. Cer­tain­ly a man who invests his hopes and enthu­si­asm in a project is less likely to keep a cool head when things become com­pli­cated. His sen­siti­vity is liable to be blunted, his pa­tience to become short, his res­traint weak. These are psycho­lo­gical com­mon­pla­ces. But they are not neces­si­ties, not inva­riant pheno­mena. To say that the liberal impulse of the refor­mer is likely to wither away is valu­able as a war­ning against dangers which are often not easy to cir­cum­vent. And it is, perhaps, just as well to be fi­nicky here. However what we are faced with is a danger, a risk, not the cer­tain­ty of doom.

  Where are we in our argu­ment? The stan­dard liber­ta­rian atti­tude to melio­rism is a reac­tion to 18th and 19th century utopi­anism and to their after­math: an exag­gera­ted faith in the welfare state. It seems to me that while the posi­tions to which we react are quite wrong
and their under­lying as­sump­tions mis­taken, it is their contra­dic­tory not their con­trary which is true. What we criti­cise in melio­rism—the simple-minded­ness, the opti­mism, the med­dling, the autho­rita­rian ten­den­cies—are exces­ses or abuses, not­with­stan­ding their fre­quen­cy; they are over­doses of a medi­cine which can however be used in the proper quan­ti­ties. There is a world of dif­fer­ence to my mind between someone like Shaw and, say, Goodman, and I should like to think that we can have a suffi­cient­ly so­phis­ti­cated social theory to take full account of the dif­fer­ence. My own view is that we have over­looked the pos­sibi­lity of a “res­trained melio­rism”, which is selec­tive and not com­mit­ted to either silly beliefs or base actions. The problem as we see it is: What is wrong in general with melio­rism? This formu­la­tion ought to be scrapped and with it all at­temp­ted answers. Instead of trying to convict melio­rism in general on general grounds, we should try to look at each and every policy, pro­posal, action, actor, or insti­tu­tion, singly, judging them on their merits. That is, in the full light of the parti­cular rele­vant histo­rical cir­cum­stan­ces, and with the sort of tenta­tive­ness or cer­tain­ty which our know­ledge of the parti­culars war­rants. An impor­tant conse­quence of such a re­ori­enta­tion would be this: we could treat the ques­tion Protest or Reform? as to some extent “open”. We could recog­nise that there is not, from the liber­ta­rian or any other point of view, a single correct answer cover­ing all situa­tions and all exi­gen­cies. This is quite con­sis­tent with having a dissi­dent, criti­cal, or oppo­si­tio­nist outlook. We can be pro­tes­ters or critics, other things being equal; indeed we can prefer this as a modus operandi to the com­mit­ted prac­tica­lism exem­pli­fied by Goodman. But we should give our­selves more room to move in by allow­ing for the fact that other things are not always equal and deplo­rable conse­quen­ces do not follow from melio­rist actions with an iron neces­sity. Some­times they don’t follow at all. There are plenty of exam­ples. To my mind it is clear that, other things being equal, it is better to have legal homo­sexu­ality than illegal, legal abor­tion than illegal, unres­tric­ted avail­abi­lity of contra­cep­tives rather than res­tric­ted, divorce by consent rather than by liti­ga­tion, little cen­sor­ship rather than much, multi­form rather than uni­form cen­sor­ship, etc., etc. None of these, consi­dered as objec­tives, is utopian in the context of con­tempo­rary Aus­tra­lia, though some are less likely than others. And poli­cies de­signed to promote these ends and others like them need not have any debi­lita­ting or cor­rup­ting effects, though of course they could have them.   Now all this not to say that liber­ta­rians ought to adjourn hence­forth to plunge into prac­tical labours, to press for legis­la­tion, and so on, let alone that they should go all out to manu­fac­ture designs for gra­cious living. I’m not con­cerned so much with encou­ra­ging our acti­vism, as with clari­fica­tion of our atti­tudes. Whether we do some­thing prac­tical and melio­rist is of little account, since obvi­ously our actions depend not only on our con­vic­tions and the clarity, sin­ceri­ty and seri­ous­ness with which we hold them, but also on the elan and energy we can muster in acting on those con­vic­tions. Poli­tical reju­vena­tion of a bunch of lazy bas­tards can hardly be expec­ted from a mere sympo­sium. Yet what we say and think about non-liber­ta­rian acti­vists
could well be modi­fied by accep­ting into our scheme of things what I have called res­trained melio­rism.


  1. Paul Goodman: Utopian Essays and Practical Proposals. Vintage Books, N.Y., 1964.
  2. John Anderson: Studies in Empirical Philo­sophy, Angus & Robert­son, Sydney, 1962, p. 332. Original emphasis.
  3. Goodman: loc. cit. p. xv, p. 116. Original emphasis.