How Greek philosophy can solve America’s budget crisis.
By **Lex Paulson**
Photograph via Wikimedia Commons by Tomisti.
“The gentleman is recognized for five minutes.”
“Mr. Chairman, anyone can get angry—that’s easy, and so is giving out and spending our money. But to be angry with or give money to the right people, and in the right amount, and at the right time, and for the right purpose, and in the right way—that’s not within everybody’s power and is not easy, but is nevertheless a praiseworthy and noble task.”
Democrat? Republican? Athenian.
A nearly word-for-word passage, in fact, from a 2,300-year-old text called the Nicomachean Ethics (II.ix.2), composed by history’s most consummate thinker. The debate over where to put public money was as hot then as now, and as America’s 12-member deficit “supercommittee” sputters toward its deadline, a judicious dose of Aristotle could save it.
Grinding deadlock, clock ticking, highest possible stakes: this used to be the moment to call in the experts. In a political crisis, so the reasoning once went, a polis should look to the men who had spent their lives gathering data on history and society and making sense of it. Contrary to their rarefied modern reputation, many Greek philosophers served as political fixers par excellence; the earliest one we know of, Thales of Miletus, helped draw up constitutions in Asia Minor between predicting solar eclipses. As John Kennedy Jr. would later say, politics was just too important to be left to the politicians.
The supercommittee has $1.2 trillion to cut, and reasonable minds are getting out-shouted by petulant ideologues. Failure to cut a deal will trigger crippling cuts in agency budgets and extinguish any hope of an economic recovery.
As Democrats and Republicans cling to their untenable extremes—the knee-jerk defense of entitlement programs and a messianic anti-tax taboo—it is time to summon the man of the “golden mean,” the thinker who called politics his “master-craft,” the sharp-eyed genius at the heart of Western political thought. The supercommittee needs Aristotle.
Even at their most infuriatingly incompetent, Members of Congress are virtuosos of budgetary fiction. Whether it’s Republicans projecting massive revenue gains from a “tax-relieved” economy or Democrats pretending that the Iraq War could have gone on for ten more years at current costs, politicians are constantly painting scenarios that neither they nor anybody else believe will occur. (As a former staffer, I can personally vouch.)
First, keep in mind that “of the two extremes one is generally a more serious error than the other.” In this case, it’s the economy, Ιδιωτα.
From its very beginnings, however, political science was not an exact science.
The Mediterranean of the 5th and 4th centuries was a carnival of political pluralism—hereditary kingdoms, clamorous democracies and innumerable hybrids, with fresh colonies being founded all the time. For practitioners of politics, the question was simple: what laws and institutions will give my polis an edge?
Whereas his mentor Plato, to this end, had conceived an ideal republic by deducing down from high principle, Aristotle decided that investigating the messy politics of real-life cities was both more interesting and far more useful.
There was a catch, though. Aristotle’s inductive approach is where Western science really begins—he practically invented biology and zoology as fields of study, and was the first systematic thinker in a dozen others—but he was keenly aware of its limits, especially where the subject in question was mankind. A relentless investigator and categorizer of the natural world, he asserted that man, the politikon zöon or “political animal,” could only achieve the good life in a well-ordered city; he thus designed his Nicomachean Ethics (named for his son Nicomachus) and the Politics as twin works, one focused on human happiness and virtue, the other on the forms of society necessary to sustain it. But though politics was “the most authoritative” of all his sciences, humans and human behavior, as he quickly discovered, resist categories in a manner that stars and plants do not.
Aristotle’s genius lay in granting the inexactitude of political reason while elevating its importance: “The subjects studied by political science,” he affirms in Book II of the Ethics, “involve so much difference of opinion and uncertainty that they are sometimes believed to be mere conventions [So] we must not look for equal exactness in all departments of study, and not allow side issues to outweigh the main tasks at hand.” Orators are not mathematicians, and shouldn’t be evaluated with the same checklist.
In other words, let’s give America’s policymakers a break. If we were less fixated on bottom-line figures and multiyear projections, the supercommittee could spend less time playing budget games and more time fixing what can be fixed right now. Our nation’s biggest budget-buster, Medicare, is ballooning due to an outmoded reimbursement system that pays for quantity over quality; our tax code is a shambolic, disjointed mess; and solid, practical reform proposals for both are in wide circulation.
Our dissentious dozen face a hard enough task without being forced to deliver a level of exactitude that the practice of politics makes impossible. Aristotle would agree that the best way to call bullshit is not to ask for it in the first place.
Last week, Democrats offered their supercommittee counterparts a deal: they would swallow $400 billion in entitlement reforms if the Republicans would accept $1 trillion in new revenues. Republicans responded a few days later with their version of a concession, a $1.2 trillion plan designed by Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) with $700 billion in spending cuts and $500 billion in new revenues over 10 years, including $250 billion in tax “reform”—ending a series of tax breaks in exchange for permanently lower income tax rates for the wealthy.
Negotatiators moving closer to some kind of deal: good news, right?
Not for the die-hards. The campaign director of MoveOn.org was quick to respond: “Any Democrat who signs off on a deal like those are [sic] imperiling their political futures.” Conservative House members were even more incensed. Asked what would persuade him to accept a final deal that included higher taxes, Rep. Michael C. Burgess (R-Tex.) responded: “Short of pestilence, famine and the end of the world?”
Aristotle was on to this kind of game: “A generous man,” he wrote, “will seem prodigal in contrast with a close-fisted man, stingy in contrast with one who is prodigal. Hence either extreme character tries to push the middle character toward the other extreme.” (Ethics, II.viii.3)
In Congress, the word “compromise” has taken on an air of defeat and treachery; let’s replace it with the “golden mean.”
Aristotle’s central ethical principle was that human virtue is not opposed to vice, but rather stuck between two vices, the extremes of far too little and far too much. Imagine your favorite work of art, he says: “You would neither take from it nor add to it—meaning that excess and deficiency destroy perfection, while adherence to the mean preserves it.” (Ethics, II.vi.9)
But what next? Accepting that virtue adopts a middle path, how can our legislators find it in a crisis?
Ever the practical sage, Aristotle gives the supercommittee three rules of thumb.
First, keep in mind that “of the two extremes one is generally a more serious error than the other.” (II.ix.3-4) In this case, it’s the economy, Ιδιωτα. Of the two extreme positions, the one which slashes social spending (and consumer demand) in the short-term would do far more lasting harm to our fragile economy than the one which makes the “job creators” pay out to save the republic. Seeking the golden mean is not just splitting the difference.
Second rule of thumb: take stock of your blind spots. Aristotle understood that humans are creatures of habit, that we are most likely to remake mistakes we have made before, and so argued that “by steering wide of our usual error we shall make a middle course.” (II.ix.5)
Today’s politicians are increasingly prisoners of “filter bubbles,” a term coined by progressive activist Eli Parisier to describe how activists on the left and right systematically avoid—and, through Facebook and Google’s algorithms, are kept from—new information which challenges their worldview. (His excellent TED Talk can be found here.)
As opportunities for cross-party collaboration have declined, the supercommittee can only succeed if they and their staffs can break through these filters to access data and ideas at the edges of their networks. Speaker Boehner has hinted that he could sell tax-code changes as “reforms” rather than hikes; supercommittee members should be scouring the policy world for fixes that allow him to do just that.
Third rule of thumb: Aristotle advises us to be “on our guard against what is pleasant,” i.e. be skeptical of the easy way out. At every stage in this Wagnerian budget showdown, Congress has blustered until the last minute, done just enough to kick the problem down the road a few months, and started over again. The result, as commentators on all sides agree, is uncertainty for markets and businesses, and a continued distraction from the other crises—education, infrastructure, and immigration, to name a few—that our dragging our economy downward.
Philosophical wisdom, even from the man Dante called “the master of those who know,” will not suffice to resolve America’s budget crisis.
Promisingly, last week a valiant group of centrist Democrats and Republicans in the House (including my old boss, Rep. Jim Himes of Connecticut) hustled up 100 bipartisan signatures for a letter voicing support for a comprehensive, $4 trillion deal in which “all options for mandatory and discretionary spending and revenues must be on the table.” If a golden mean is still possible in American public life, this is the kind of leadership that will help us find it.
Aristotle’s final message to the supercommittee is a simple one: if you can’t innovate, borrow.
What made Aristotle the most influential philosopher in Western history was his conviction that the radical breakthroughs in human thought come not from lofty introspection but from omnivorous engagement in the world around us.
In Book II of the Politics, for example, he contrasts how different Greek cities deal with economic inequality, pointing out advantages and flaws in Spartan communism, Athenian caps on landholding, and a curious Chalcedonian idea to level social inequality by legislating that rich families should give marriage dowries and not receive them, and vice versa for the poor.
In an eerily prophetic passage, Aristotle anticipates the inexorable growth in social entitlement programs, noting that when a dole “of only two obols has become an established custom, [citizens] always want more, until they get to an unlimited amount.” (He argues for a system-wide lowering of public expectations.)
The pages of history books, and the newspapers of Europe and Asia, are filled with ideas and case studies for our nation’s budgeteers.
As proud and self-sufficient as we are, Americans should cast an Aristotelian eye at home abroad: What kind of fiscal austerity is working, and what kind is counterproductive? How are different states modernizing public services? How do European governments spend half the money on health care and produce healthier people? What can we learn about job creation from the energy-sector entrepreneurs of China and Brazil?
This kind of inductive approach to our budget crisis will surely reveal as many cautionary tales as revelations, but both kinds of practical wisdom allow us to depart from old partisan playbooks.
Philosophical wisdom, even from the man Dante called “the master of those who know,” will not suffice to resolve America’s budget crisis. As Aristotle himself concedes, “Knowing about what is just and noble and good does not make us any more capable of doing it.” (Ethics, VI.vii.1)
What makes humans hard to categorize is, for the great sage, both our greatest gift and our most dangerous one: the power to choose. Philosophy can light the path, but only those with megalopsychia, “greatness of soul,” will decide to follow it.
Supercommittee co-chair Jeb Hensarling (R-Tex.) told his caucus this week that any deal the panel produces will either be an “abject [failure] or a ‘kiss-your-sister agreement.’” Translating from the Texan, Hensarling is leaving just enough room for a deal which makes everyone a little unhappy but which might just save the country.
“They should rule who are able to rule best,” Aristotle concludes. If the men and women currently in office cannot summon the megalopsychia to strike a lasting deal, he would surely advise us to find new ones.
Lex Paulson is a former Obama campaign organizer and legislative counsel on Capitol Hill. He’s currently pursuing a PhD in classical political philosophy at the Sorbonne.