X: Social thought. Conversations with the original personalities who are rethinking the way our society and institutions work. With your host, Michael Phillips.
How do the central values in American society shape the institutions we live under?
Michael Phillips (MP): Our guest today is Neil Smelser. He's Director of the Center for the Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford. He is most recently author of a book called Sociology and, before that, a book called Social Paralysis and Social Change. I'm your host, Michael Phillips. Welcome to Social Thought, Dr.ÝSmelser. What are the core ideas that shape American institutions?
NEIL SMELSER: I would start by singling out two ideas, two values, two central values in American tradition which, while they have been criticized, still occupy an absolutely central defining place in our civilization: individualism, and all its ramifications, and the idea of equality, especially equality of opportunity. What I'd like to do is just to point out the way they worked themselves into the fabric of our institutions, and in some respects create a lot of dilemmas for us, and place a lot of constraints on our capacity to decide about how we do things institutionally. Let me begin with the idea of health service. We're worried about the cost of health services, and we're worried about its efficiency. We don't often think about the fundamental values that might be contributing to the fact that we now identify these as problems. If we are under the influence of values we regard as sacred, the individualism and equality, this means that we place an enormously high value on individual life, and that we're willing to go to all sorts of ends to preserve a life even though, in the bottom of our hearts, we don't think it's very valuable or reasonable to preserve. Equality means that we have trouble treating one patient differently from another, because of that, of the pervasiveness of that value. So, consequently, the ramifications of these values are such is that, when a patient comes in with some kind of serious disorder, the idea is we cannot make a decision to let this patient die, really, I mean the legitimate decision to let this patient die, and, we also have the predisposition to not make judgments that this patient is less worthy than some other patient, in some fundamental way, and we believe that everything should be done to preserve this individual's life. If you put those three components together, you have built in an engine of extremely high cost for any kind of medical system. I see those as a direct ramification of the application of the ideas of individualism on the one hand and equality on the other. Move to another arena. The values of individualism and equality of opportunity pervade our educational institutions, so much that we do not think twice about organizing almost all of our classroom activity over the assessment of individual performance and the doling out of individual rewards and punishment. There have been a lot of psychologists, a lot of educators, who have pointed out the exceptional power of group learning, or group performance, of group assessment, and there have been some remarkable experiments done in some educational institutions which tend to confirm the power of cooperation and the power of group morale in enhancing performance, both individual and group. Yet these kind, this kind of knowledge becomes vaguely illegitimate, because we are so bent on analyzing and understanding and rewarding and judging the individual. This works its way up from the very early to the very late stages of education. And I see that this kind of cultural tilt toward individualizing everything in the competitive academic situation, as well as sports, follows from the two twin ideas, that the individual above all is what counts and, secondly, everybody ought to be given an equal chance. And we throw a tremendous amount of our resources into organizing classrooms and schools and institutes and academies and universities on the basis of these two legitimizing values. Incidentally, an interesting spin-off of this is that colleges and universities, for example, find it very easy to deal with individual students. I mean they admit individuals, they test individuals, they grade individuals, they graduate individuals, they discipline individuals who act up, they recommend individuals to jobs after they get out of college, but they have no institutionalized capacity to deal with groups. That's the way they're institutionalized. This is one of the reasons, I believe, why colleges and universities had it so tough in the 1960s, when protests and disobedience and political action took on a collective nature. They didn't know what to do, they couldn't handle group conflict, simply because it was not in their institutional fabric to do so. And a lot of institutions at that time struggled really to invent heretofore-nonexistent systems to deal with group conflict. They're still not very good at it, because of the deep institutionalization of the idea it's the individual student that counts, it's what matters above all, in the system. Push this a little further, I think one of the reasons colleges and universities are having such trouble dealing with the contemporary issue of multiculturalism on campus is because it is the invasion of the curriculum by group interests, and that somehow or other it's created a political or group phenomenon, and why the conflicts become intractable, we just are not very well institutionally equipped to deal with group conflict. Now, this is not true of all our institutions. While we have institutionalized the value of individualism to an extreme degree in the political arena, by the principle of one-person/one-vote, ............ all individuals count equally, for example, we also have institutionalized in our party system historically some capacity to deal with group conflict. For what, after all, are parties for, other than for being a kind of repository for representation of group interests and the building up of general platforms or acceptable positions that the diversity of groups in parties will find more or less livable with. However, with the decline of the political party system in our society, what used to be, that is to say, assimilated into the party structure, and represented as distilled results of conflict, now the conflict tends to be larger and more public and directed directly at the government, bypassing the previously existing party systems, and government agencies themselves are not that capable of dealing directly with conflict. The social movement, that is to say the collective representation of interests, seems to have replaced the political party as a basis for expressing opinion, and that the party has, no longer plays that extremely valuable historical function of mediating and diffusing group conflicts. American society should be congratulated for its assimilating diverse cultural groups into its fabric, and I do not know of any society that's had a more admirable record than the United States in this regard, but one of the ways that it has accomplished that assimilation is to individualize those groups into their component members, and let individuals from those groups move, say, up the economic ladder, or through the educational system, or into professions, and so on. And to minimize the collective representation of those groups, or to provide a crucible such as the political party as a way of bringing them together. One of the reasons why the American polity is under some strain at the present time is that the representations of minority groups have become increasingly more collective in character, rather than individual. For example, affirmative action individualizes groups that have been presumably disadvantaged in the past. Decisions are supposed to made by employers, by universities, by schools, that will give the benefit of the doubt in case of equal talent to member of previously disadvantaged groups, usually racial, ethnic minorities. Well, that invention is a typically American invention, of giving individuals some basis for advancement in the system. However, it is simultaneously a group representation as a kind of entitlement. For that reason, affirmative action as the expression of competition or contest among different groups becomes harder to manage, politically. For example, under the pressure of different groups to find a proper level of, let's say, admission into college of their own types, the university gets caught in a numbers game, of admitting a certain percentage of blacks, a certain percentage of Hispanics, a certain percentage of Asians, a certain percentage of Native Americans, whatever. And, because this becomes a matter of collective interest on the part of those groups as well as dominant Anglo groups, the university and college finds itself in a position where it cannot win, because if you admit a higher percentage of one group, you admit a lower percentage of another. Even if you increase the percentage of a give group, it is always possible to argue that that's not high enough. You see, universities and colleges, as well as employers, are not especially well equipped to handle group conflict. They're extremely well equipped to process individuals. Well, those are some of the major manifestations, I would say, of the twin values that I mentioned at the beginning, into the medical, the educational, the commercial, and the political aspects of our lives.
MP: This is Social Thought, I'm Michael Phillips, and our guest today is Neil Smelser. He's Director the Center for the Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford and was a professor of sociology for 35Ýyears at the University of California. His most recent book is called Sociology, from Blackwell. I want to look at some of the details in this. When we talk about the problem in the political realm of accommodating multiculturalism and the movement toward more direct action on the part of large groups toward their either bureaucratic agencies that affect them or toward Congress, how do Americans design institutions for action of this sort when we have such a completely barren history?
NEIL SMELSER: One of the great inventions of the American political system, and I say this with no intent at irony or humor, is the pork barrel. Originally designed, through the party system, of handling regional competition in the United States, that mechanism of resolving conflict, by giving something to everybody, is a remarkably effective peace-making device, if your country either is or appears to be boundless in its resources. It still continues to exercise influence in the political process. But it seems to be reaching a kind of critical point at this time, largely because the number of claimants, the number of elements in the society, that have a claim on the democratic polity, has in some sense got out of hand. By getting out of hand I mean that the principle of responding materially or politically to all the meaningful groups that are making a claim can become progressively more difficult because of the limitation of resources, that in the end traces to our lower rate of economic growth. The place where this shows up more often than not is in the budget, where the budget is a reflection of political demands more than anything else. It's just a managing device for the resources of the state or the country, it's a reflection of the realities of the political process. And almost every polity at every level in the country is in trouble budgetarily. Forever threatening to run deficits, forever threatening to go broke. There are two reasons for this, one economic and one political. One has to the limitations of resources that are available, and the second has to do with the kinds of demands that are place on those resources. For politicians and political leaders to survive, they have to rely on the mechanisms of satisfying their constituencies. And survival, of course, is the way of life of politicians. So, they respond to groups in the way that traditionally they best know how, that is to say by giving some kind of recognition to those groups in terms of tax benefits or employment possibilities or the allocation of resources, or whatever. Well, pretty soon this reached the end of the line, the demands are such that the polity is put under great strain. There was a congealing of opinion on the part of some political scientists a number of years ago, among them Samuel Huntington, Irving Crystal, I think Michel ?Crosier from France was in that group, who ventured the argument that we have too much democracy, in this society. A very unpopular argument, by the way. And they followed something of the line of reasoning that I have just developed, that we are out of balance between the capacity of the polity to respond to the demands of relevant group in the society and the demands that are being made. They had no anti-democratic formula. As a matter of fact, even our commitment to democratic values, they had a hard time even surviving by putting forth such an argument, because it does seem to be anti-democratic in character. And, that's another place where the larger political value has operated to in some sense hamstring or make our institutional life more difficult. Because, if this combination of accountability to the electoral process and accountability to organized groups making demands on the polity is in any way compromised, then politicians and others are put in the position of being anti-democratic. So that there is no way in which we can in any way effectively challenge the idea of one-person/one-vote, or effectively challenge the legitimacy of interest groups in making demands on the polity, because of our commitments to the democratic system. I mean, I am as big a fan of democracy as anybody in the world, but at the same time you have to acknowledge the general principle that any value that you institutionalize is going to involve you in a serious constriction on the number of alternatives that are available to you for dealing with social problems, for dealing with economic problems, as they arise. This is not a distinctive characteristic of democracy by any means, because any political system that institutionalizes a given principle is going to generate its own problems and is going to generate its own limitations in dealing with those problems. I think it's less often appreciated that democracy itself has some builtin limitations as a general cultural value, largely because we love it so much that we find difficulty in taking analytic distance from it. It's a value that conditions all our discourse and much of the discourse is a competition among people who, competition as to who approaches the democratic ideal more closely. And so, consequently, people with different points of view are both going to appeal to democracy as the legitimizing basis for their own point of view, and it's a jockeying as to whose case can be made as to represent democracy more, rather than less. A political-scientist colleague of mine by the name of David Collier has done a content analysis of the number of ways in which democracy has been used or qualified in the literature. He's found several hundred, you know, false democracy, near democracy, tyrannical democracy, and so on, showing this tremendous preoccupation with this wonderful, lovely symbol called democratic values, and the competition among, not only citizens and groups, but also scholars, in analyzing all social arrangements as to how closely they measure up to this value of democracy. When in fact, while all of us do in fact have our own positive commitments toward the values of democracy, we are less willing to admit that a commitment to that line of values may also generate some blind spots on our parts, and some incapacity to act when social circumstances so dictate. One other point. If we throw into a single complex the values of individualism, equality, and democracy, all of which we do regard as central and sacred features of our own tradition, we also can say a lot, I believe, about what is often described as the decline of the family. And, the limited legitimacy that those who are presumed to exercise authority in the family have in exercising authority, in the face of these three values. Children are very quick to learn values, in one degree of articulation or another, and it doesn't take them very long to know that the field of the values of equality and democracy and individualism constitute a very powerful weapon against parental authority. And as often as not, some variation of combinations of those arguments, or derivations from those arguments, are in fact used by children in defying the authority of their parents. Again, this is an unpopular point of view to put forward, because it seems as though you're arguing for more parental authority, or a return to some kind of more paternalistic society, which I am not. But it is very worthwhile pointing out the logical implications of values for one institution after another, and indeed to identify some of what we perceive as social problems in these institutions, as a more or less, well, I would say a more or less direct derivative of the implications of those values themselves.
MP: Let me ask you about several real institutions, that Americans created. One, of course, is the military, and how we bring those values to bear there. And the second one is, commerce. Because commerce, in and of itself has been generating some very large institutions that must be represented and are inherently in conflict with both the individual and the equality notion.
NEIL SMELSER: The military. Take as a starting point the common judgment on the part of those familiar with the history of the military in the world. The common judgment is that American does not have a military system. They do not understand the values of military honor. They do not understand the values of military authority. They do not have a military tradition. That's the rap that the American military gets in a comparative context. Well, there's something to that. And the reason for that is that the military is inherently an unpopular institution in a democratic society, and in a society committed to equality of various sorts. It's a hierarchical institution, with all kinds of values to shore up that hierarchical notion. The one exception to the rule that is often cited is it's the only place where any evaluation of the military is ever counted in the United States is in the American South. Well, be that as it may, whether it's true or not, if it is true, the reason might very well be is that the American South really inherited in purer form the British aristocratic ideals, whereas the rest of the country inherited the British bourgeois or commercial ideals, so that the appreciation of the principles of military honor and military pride and military tradition, which are very closely linked to the aristocratic tradition, might have a more identifiable institutional root in the South. But, I would way, in response to your question, that the military deep down is a kind of an embarrassment in American society, because it's too inherently authoritarian for us to be comfortable with. Now, we live with it, we know it's necessary, we have one, and we continue to have one. But it's not an institution that is one of our favorites, because it tends to go institutionally against those very values I've been talking about. Commerce. We also have an ambivalence toward commerce and we have ambivalence toward the results of producing big and powerful units in the economy. They are all there, the banks, the huge corporations, the trusts, the multinationals, and so on. They all develop. But they are also something with which we are historically and institutionally uncomfortable. I mean, you need go no further than the whole history of anti-trust legislation in the United States to show the kind of sacred worship we have of maintaining competition in the market, and not letting very powerful economic agents gain control; even though we've lost that battle in some degrees, we still think of it as a cultural ideal. I see the worship of competition as a direct derivative of the value of individualism, that is to say, let the individual in the market not be dominated, not be given, not be made, put in an unfair position by the position of others who can control the market, and so on. The reason why anti-trust and cartels are such a big interest in the United States, and not so big in Europe and other parts of the world, is because we see them as fundamentally corrupting to the values of individual competition, individual enterprise. They inhibit, they control, they are unfair, they cheat, they do not give everybody a fair chance. You see how these values of individualism and equality of opportunity get funneled into the basic social conflicts about commerce in our own society. Commerce, big commerce, big business, is in some sense like the military, something of a cultural embarrassment in the United States, even though it's all over the place and we have it, it's something about which we have the greatest difficulty not being ambivalent toward, largely because it is a foreign element in our own deeply held and unexamined cultural, often unexamined cultural premises.
MP: Thank you for being with us, Professor Smelser. This is Michael Phillips, the program is Social Thought, our guest was Neil Smelser. He's Director of the Center for the Advanced Study in Behavioral Sciences at Stanford. The two books most recently referred to are Sociology, from Blackwell in 1994, and an earlier work, Social Paralysis and Social Change from the University of California Press, 1991.