Researcher and Writer in Washington, DC

Research Note: Isaiah Berlin and the Politics of Simple Solutions

Photo: Lucinda Douglas-Menzies

The more difficult times are, the more intense the demand for simple solutions. This seems to be the case for both individuals and groups, be they corporations, religions, or nations.

The February 25, 2010 issue of the New York Review of Books carried some short essays on Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997).  Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times wrote a nice, little essay titled “Explorer,” which quotes Berlin’s book Crooked Timber:

Both liberty and equality are among the primary goals pursued by human beings through many centuries, but total liberty for wolves is death to the lambs, total liberty of the powerful, the gifted, is not compatible with the rights to a decent existence of the weak and the less gifted…. Some among the Great Goods cannot live together.  We are doomed to choose, and every choice may entail an irreparable loss.

Or, as an economist once put it to me, “We live in a world of trade-offs.”  The pursuit of one goal is the abandonment of another, at least for the time.

This is why governance in a pluralistic, democratic society is hopelessly messy.  The governed push the government to respond, and over time the effect of these different shoves creates a perpetual lurching about. The brute facts of pluralism and representative governance ensure that policies will be compromises, not optimal solutions.  The lack of precision invites disappointment, especially from those who want purer results.  It is not a  pretty process, but it works much better than most other ways of governing.

The incompatibility of ideals and objectives, and the inevitably of trade-offs in both one’s own life and in social life is indisputable.  Yet, how often do we hear individuals and groups aggressively peddling simple solutions to big, complex problems?  The proliferation of staunch, single-issue groups and the hucksters offering magic geegaws to fix people lives are twin manifestations of this phenomenon.

Ironically, then, those offering simple solutions make life messier still.  The lurching becomes more intense, more like a frenetic grasping for quick fixes. When the government fails to deliver a quick, perfect policy, the public’s anger and disgust grows higher, and its demand for change more intense.

Though Berlin may have bristled at the characterization, I will say it anyway—his statement exhibits a sort of conservatism, a conservatism of temperament, a mindset that is increasingly hard to find among the political scribblers and talkers in the United States.

Whatever one’s political positions, in seems to me to be sociologically indisputable that the waning of moderate political scribblers and talkers is not a good thing.  Does anyone honestly think that the polity is improved when the scribblers and talkers fan the flames of anger and political polarization?  Does anyone believe that the nation is improved by transmogrifying national politics largely into an exercise in position-taking and demonization?

Plainly, political polarization makes the  building of coalitions and the negotiation of palatable solutions to difficult public problems fantastically hard.  Really, ask yourself—if you were a politician, would you want to sit down and work with members of another party who had trashed you in the newspapers, online, and on TV?  Not only would it be personally unpleasant, it also could prove politically perilous—one risks being tarred by one’s own supporters as a traitor for sitting down with “the enemy.”

A few contemporary media figures have sounded alarms on this development.  Back in 2004, John Stewart scored a small victory by driving the show Crossfire off the air. “Stop hurting America,” he implored.  Sam Tanenhaus wrote a book, The Death of Conservatism, that gently took to task the hard-edge that the American right has developed.  And David Brooks of the New York Times, has commented on the subject, most recently in this April 23, 2010 column.  No doubt there are a few others who understand that the political need not be the personal.

Isaiah Berlin, for sure, would find the current state of things troubling.  The title of Crooked Timber comes from an Immanuel Kant quote.  “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.”  Those who recognize man’s imperfection are obliged to accept imperfection in politics and government.  Ideally, citizens of a democratic republic probably should have the traits of humility, charity, and a distrust for simple solutions.

Trashing politicians is easy, but as Plato long ago showed, the regime tends to reflects the character of the  people.  Politics will not change much until we do.

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