The democratic fallacy has been its preoccupation with the origin of government rather than with the processes and results. The democrat has always assumed that if political power could be derived in the right way, it would be benificient. His whole attention has been on the source of power, since he is hypnotized by the belief that the great thing is to express the will of the people, first because expression is the highest interest of man, and second because the will is instinctively good. But no amount of regulation at the source of a river will completely control its behavior, and while democrats have been absorbed in trying to find a good mechanism for originating social power…they neglected almost every other interest of men. For no matter how power originates, the crucial interest is in how power is exercised. What determines the quality of civilization is the use made of power. And that use cannot be controlled at the source.
This passage jumped out at me because I read this description of the democrat (here, to mean someone who advocates for democracy, I believe, rather than the political party association) as an analogy for a bigger Potential vs Actual relationship. The ideas of probability are still seeping into mainstream worldview, and this quote gives a good example of a social system can fail not for lack of effort, but for lack of realization of its own nature as potential. There are any number of examples of this about, but the democracy one seems to stick.
Firstly, it is easy to imagine the relationship and think of examples. Any law as a result of the democratic structure doesn’t dictate the action of the people, but only sets limits on action. Second, this example is vivid and evokes the blinding passionate side of the dichotomy. People die for democracy; People base their identity around it. It is easy to understand how someone could be preoccupied and absorbed by the origin of societal life…enough to not see it for what it is, neglecting other important interests of the process of living in a society.
I particularly like that the reference to “quality of civilization” doesn’t appear until the end of the paragraph. It kind of hits home that this ultimate goal of an intentional social process has been abandoned; lost in afterthought, like a fantastic playground park that is never mowed or even repaired once the play structures start to crack and become dangerous. The neglect of process is only realized at the last point of reflection. A Democratic structure can result in many different types of actual societies (Perhaps illustrated by my previous blog entry), and not necessarily sharing the good intention from which it originates.
I might disagree with the statement about crucial interest, however, but that’s where this quote gets interesting. Surely, how power (the subject of potential in this example) is exercised is important, but the source is potentially equally as important. In a social field, we can control our limits to some degree, and of course this is important; the rules of a sport will dictate what athletic skill sets we value. I’m tempted to read into it that the origin of power should simply allow for the greatest variety of potential possible, but I don’t think that is what the author is getting at. If so, then Anarchy is the best bet in the democracy example….or, in the bigger picture, the elimination of intention is the goal. I think he simply misses a symbiotic point, in that each side of the goal pursuit is important (setting potential & guiding actual). Without the aid of the other, the intended goal becomes little more than a random hope.
I can’t help but to think of this quote in terms of Education. I’ve tried reading this passage by changing the word power to the word learning & democrat to educator. It’s an interesting exercise. A few other words and phrases need to be altered, but there’s something there.
The Potential vs Actual battle can be seen in many places, but especially as a Social Science, and especially where my own thoughts and readings are these days. This description may apply to many different levels of Educational Systems. On a large scale, I think it isn’t so difficult to see where ideas about the origin of learning can dominate process. Even on a small scale, there have been times when I’ve prepared my own lessons innovativly and with sound planning, only to have easily neglected key actions of process and time, resulting in only accidental high quality learning, if that. It’s a constant balance, difficult at times to keep consistent. Education is the tension between structure and learning, and even with the best design and instructor, there are any number of other interests that need to be considered after the educational learning process has been set in motion.
Walter Lippman, in his book Public Opinion, follows up this paragraph with the excellent observation: If you try to control the government wholly at the source, you inevitably make all the vital decisions invisible. I’m not exactly sure if this line would pertain to Education or not; he gets into some concepts that are more about access rather than neglect…although there is the idea of learner responsibility to consider, but even that could be much better taught in mandatory Education Systems. Anyway, it’s something to think about. Educational Structure that seeks to either control or eliminate most decisions at the source of learning puts major restrictions on the quality of educational learning that is possible. Unless you’re in it just for the show, why build a house and refuse to let people move in?