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Where to Start Change

In response to:

Is the Right Choice a Good Bargain? from the March 5, 2015 issue

To the Editors:

Michael Walzer [“Is the Right Choice a Good Bargain?,” NYR, March 5] points to a central problem with Cass Sunstein’s perspective: the assumption that what is needed is to improve procedures of group decision-making in order to increase the likelihood of making “right” choices about ends, which are conceived as givens. This is technical rationality, which holds ends to be fixed and concentrates on efficiency of means. As Walzer observes, Sunstein misses the larger, and more important, questions of real politics in which ends themselves are subject to an ongoing process of negotiation, debate, and reformulation. Yet Walzer himself also conceives of change-oriented, citizen-involving politics as targeting institutions more than transforming them. To address the problems of politics in today’s world we need more than agitation from outside institutional life, the “system world” in the language of Jürgen Habermas, long a theoretical reference point for Sunstein.

Sunstein, like Habermas and many others, sees major institutions as largely fixed and unchangeable, not subject to democratizing change. This assumption generates fatalism, which has shrunk our imaginations about decision-making, politics, and democracy itself. The challenge is to recognize that institutions of all kinds are human creations that in turn can be recreated, reconnected to questions of civic and democratic purpose. For this task we need to bring in Max Weber as well as Machiavelli and Marx. Weber described the “iron cage” that results from technical rationality. In his essay “The Profession and the Vocation of Politics,” Weber also evocatively termed the pattern “the polar night of icy darkness.” Thawing the polar night is a frontier of democracy in the twenty-first century.

Harry Boyte, Augsburg College, St. Paul, Minnesota; Albert Dzur, Bowling Green University, Bowling Green, Ohio; Peter Levine, Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service, Tufts University, Medford, Massachusetts

Michael Walzer replies:

I certainly agree, and so would Sunstein and Reid Hastie, that it’s a good idea to read Max Weber; and I also agree, and so would they, that political and economic institutions are human creations. As they were formed, so they can be reformed and transformed. Since Professors Boyte, Dzur, and Levine don’t tell us which institutions they want to transform, I can’t say whether I am ready to join them. Meanwhile, important decisions are still being made inside institutions, like the US Congress and its committees, for example, or inside the White House, and I can’t see what is wrong with trying to influence those decisions to make them more serviceable to ordinary Americans. I don’t think that will happen, or happen in significant ways, until those ordinary Americans organize themselves to bring pressure on the institutional decisions-makers. These writers want something more than that, but that much, these days, would be well worth celebrating.