Want a future worth living? Here’s a first step

“The unexamined life is not worth living.”                                                            

–    Socrates (c. 469BC-399BC, as recorded by Plato)

For many people, the name and the person of Socrates epitomize wisdom. Sound bites such as this one are one reason why. Today, we tend to interpret this famous observation in terms of our individual lives. We see it as a call to introspection, and to the spiritual. Nothing could be more fundamental!

But there’s a good chance Socrates meant this to apply not just to individuals but also to our society as a whole. In fact, this quote is attributed to Socrates late in life. By then, most of his troubles – the difficulties that led to his drinking the poison hemlock – were political in nature. He saw his fellow Athenians lacking wisdom, even the best and brightest of them. That earned him a few enemies as well as friends. But he was not just a moral critic but a social critic, and this may have led to his trial.

The days immediately following a national election are a perfect occasion to consider this question. How thoughtfully and insightfully do we examine our lives in and as a community?

Elections themselves certainly provide an examination of a sort. We ask, “Are we better off than we were two or four years ago? Which of the candidates better understands and embodies our circumstances, needs, and aspirations?” Nevertheless, today’s elections – however democratic and open – feature negative advertising and mudslinging, ad hominen attacks and gross caricatures, misrepresentations, oversimplifications, and outright lies. It’s hard to imagine that Socrates would wholly approve, or see this as the total answer.

What about policy analysis? Imperfect to be sure, but certainly another means for examining how we’re doing as a society. What kinds of policies do we develop? What are their ends and purposes? Freedom and liberty for all? Or for just a privileged few? How do they balance the legitimate needs of some for welfare while providing training, education, and incentives for jobseekers and keeping deadbeats and malingerers off the dole? How do our policies value life, and for whom? What do they say about healthcare? The environment? Education? What will be the unintended consequences of proposed legislation? How might policies be made more effective? How might policies of different countries be reconciled in the international arena?

Socrates might applaud the consideration of these and similar questions. In fact, if he were alive today he might argue that our need for such analysis, across the whole of human affairs, has never been more urgent.

Flashback to the situation at the end of World War II. The world breathed a big sigh of relief. At that time everyone realized that science and technology – the atomic bomb, and radar, and penicillin, and much more – had saved the day. It would therefore be dangerous to leave the field of science and technology to others, lest new weapons and opportunities fall into the wrong hands. So all those nations who could afford to do so began the strategic support of basic science and related R&D. After more than half a century of such support, the advance of knowledge and understanding has outstripped society’s ability to capture the rewards. How to harness the benefit? Supportive policies at every level of government, with respect to every aspect of life, are the key.

To identify, develop, and execute those policies requires analysis. Currently such analysis is the province of a few academics, haphazardly supported by foundations and donors. Many if not most of these have the most noble motives: promoting public health, preservation of the environment, improving public education, etc. Some, however, are avowedly partisan and self-interested.

In any event, a much more vigorous, robust, even-handed body of policy analysis is needed. So the vital question: should Americans through our government support such policy analysis, just as the National Science Foundation funds basic science, and the National Endowment for the Arts supports the arts?

And another question, which Socrates would have been sure to ask: evenhanded? Is such a thing not an oxymoron? How on Earth, especially in the contentious real world we live in, can such aims possibly be achieved? Should this even be attempted?

[Part of the problem here is that the name and reputation of policy/policy analysis has been somewhat unfairly besmirched by the antics and larking about of its rather visible and sometimes off-putting relative, politics. The situation is not unlike the challenge faced by some of our most famous statesmen. Remember Billy Carter? Or Roger Clinton? Jimmy and Bill had a lot of trouble living them down. In the same way, policy analysis, invaluable and irreplaceable though it may be, can never be free of the taint of self-interest.]

It’s an imperfect world. And, as argued in earlier posts, we don’t have unlimited time. The urgency of our circumstance – not so different from that at the end of World War II – dictates we act. We’ve got to build more effective policy frameworks.

But as you may have noticed, hardly anyone is thinking about this problem right now, least of all the just-elected politicians. For most, today’s preoccupation is the new calculus represented by the shift in power in the House of Representatives.

Meanwhile, Socrates is casting about… Where’d he misplace that hemlock? What are chances of taking another swig?

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