The Knowable and the Doable

In politics, there is a cost/benefit analysis that should take place within the philosophy of political activity.  It is on a grid that includes the degree to which a group can know what actions are correct and what actions are possible.  For example, in the nineteenth century, slavery was a hot topic of political philosophy.  Abolitionists believed that freeing the slaves was the correct action and that it was a possible thing to accomplish.  They had no doubts as to the moral correctness and the ability of society to both free these people and transition them into society.  They believed that abolition of slavery was both fully ‘knowable’ and ‘doable.’  However, there were others who disagreed on this premise and their argument was predicated on different bases. 


Northern Peace Democrats, as a group, felt slavery was a ‘bad thing’ and so it was known that slaves were people that deserved freedom.  However, they didn’t believe the process was ‘doable’ in the sense that slaves could be shepherded into society.  They believed it was a southern problem and not one that could be accomplished.  To some extent they were entirely correct that the ‘doability’ of the situation wasn’t possible in the late nineteenth century.  In fact, it wasn’t until the middle and middle late parts of the twentieth century that blacks became fully part of the mainstream society.  Clearly, three generations of transition were necessary and during that time a great deal of ill will and blood flowed under the proverbial bridge. 


In addition, there were elements in the south who felt that it was very possible to free the slaves, in other words, quite doable, but that by their very nature, black people weren’t amenable to American society.  In fact, these people feared the freeing of the slaves even more than others because it would in effect ‘infect’ American society with a group of people that could not become productive, integrated parts of the whole.  These were the separatists elements of the South.  They feared the North and the Republican party’s ability to free a people that they believed were deficient and shouldn’t be freed. 


And finally, there was a third group.  A group that believed it was neither ‘right’ to free the slaves nor was it ‘possible.’  These became the segregationists following the Civil War.  They persuaded the former combatants to isolate and neutralize the former slaves and the black population as a whole.  Almost a century of segregation finally fell and the argument became a moot issue in the late twentieth century.  Only very extreme elements of society still think abolition is either ‘unknowable’ or ‘undoable.’  Certainly, only the most extreme of the extreme believe they are both.  The slavery question is most definitely a shining example of the ‘progressive’ state of mind.  But every question is not so clear.


Following abolition of slavery, groups of progressives worked tirelessly to prove their ideas of social change as both doable and knowable would work regardless of the cause.  It was society that would have to change and not individuals or groups of individuals.  Their cause was holy and good and society would have to reform to accommodate their ‘sainted’ purposes. 


Society had a host of ills as identified following the Civil War.  One of these ills was the consumption of alcohol.  Thousands of people who had been affected by alcohol-addicted family and friends began to push for society to change and eliminate the access to alcohol thereby ‘saving’ those to weak to imbibe without restraint.  First they started on the local level attempting to destroy saloons and distilleries, drinking holes and breweries, because their philosophy informed them that alcoholism was a problem that was both ‘knowable’ and ‘doable.’  They ‘knew’ that alcohol was the culprit and produced ‘studies’ on its effect on workers, families, communities, and society.  It sapped the verve of the culture and destroyed initiative.  They ‘knew’ if they eliminated alcohol from the nation it would ‘fix’ the problems of broken families, broken lives, and shattered economies.  These do-gooders also felt it was indeed ‘doable.’  They could pass an amendment to the Constitution that would ban the sale, use, and movement of alcohol and wipe out diseases of alcohol forever.  These were the orthodox ‘drys’ in the political jargon of the time.


But, as with slavery, there were elements of society that believed otherwise.  Many of these believed that it wasn’t ‘alcohol’ that was the problem.  They believed alcohol could be eliminated from the nation’s diet but weren’t so sure it was the solution to the problem.  They became persuaded to try the ‘noble cause’ because of their belief it wouldn’t hurt to try.  If you eliminated alcohol from the nation, it may not solve all the country’s problems but surely it wouldn’t make them worse.  Alcoholism was a debilitating disease that did hurt families and individuals so eventually they allowed themselves to become persuaded to the ‘dry’ cause.


Other groups weren’t so sure.  One group believed it was not ‘knowable’ whether alcohol was the problem or something else.  It could be that there are individuals with problems that need addressing who use alcohol as a crutch.  Taking away the crutch would neither solve the infirmity nor help those around them.  They believed it was ‘doable’ to eliminate alcohol from society and feared it would only leave troubled individuals without help.  In addition, they argued it was a necessary part of society from which a great deal of good came about.  People lubricated with a little libation at social events were happier and more accommodating.  Also, it was a necessary part of religious and cultural life for many people.  They opposed with vehemence any attempt to ban alcohol from the nation’s diet.  It wasn’t ‘knowable’ it would indeed help anyone.  It could also lead to banning other things that were supposedly ‘bad’ for you.  These who fought most assuredly were called the ‘wets.’ 


The ‘wets’ natural allies were the final group who didn’t believe alcohol was ‘knowable’ as the root of all evil or even ‘doable’ from a societal standpoint.  Not only was the argument against alcohol a spurious one at best, it wasn’t possible in such a large, free country to eliminate a naturally occurring substance that had social and cultural implications deeply ingrained into many groups of people.  As a group, these skeptics were isolated from the rest of the American political spectrum because it was argued they were outside the mainstream.  The other three groups, believing the rhetoric about the importance of ‘fixing’ society in one way or another, soon passed Prohibition and empowered the federal government to enforce it with the Volstead Act. 


Many Americans took the movement seriously, but a large number didn’t.  Prohibition has the dubious honor of showing how difficult and dangerous it is to legislate social change.  Whether it was ‘knowable’ that banning alcoholic spirits was the right thing to do can never be proven.  That is because it proved ‘undoable.’  Society rapidly began to ignore and even flaunt the law.  Speakeasies, backwoods juke joints, and moonshine quickly spread throughout the country.  Politicians, religious leaders, and everyday people demanded alcohol and got it.  Some was produced illegally within the country and some was imported through porous borders and seaports.  Regardless of how it got in, what began as a trickle became a torrent.  Like the little Dutch boy, law enforcement tried to stem the leaks in the hole-ridden dyke.  It was pointless.  Soon the movers and shakers of society conceded the point.  John D. Rockefeller, Jr., a vehement ‘dry’ commented,


“When Prohibition was introduced, I hoped that it would be widely supported by public opinion and the day would soon come when the evil effects of alcohol would be recognized. I have slowly and reluctantly come to believe that this has not been the result. Instead, drinking has generally increased; the speakeasy has replaced the saloon; a vast army of lawbreakers has appeared; many of our best citizens have openly ignored Prohibition; respect for the law has been greatly lessened; and crime has increased to a level never seen before.”


The social engineering involved in Prohibition wasn’t just a failure in solving the alcohol problems of the nation.  It created a giant criminal enterprise that didn’t disappear just because alcohol was now legal.  Furthermore, it sapped the faith of the populace.  Making a large plurality of your society outlaws tends to make all your laws and customs suspect.  Police became corrupt and when not corrupt viewed as corrupt.  Faith in the system was shaken.  It was so much so that new questions about society arose. 


But strangely enough, the ‘knowable’ and doable’ paradigm which had created such a criminal monster didn’t die or become discredited.  Instead, the social engineers felt such a failure was not evidence of the limitations of the mindset but rather began to ‘double-down’ on the idea.  Sociologists, political scientists, and other social commentators didn’t learn from their fiasco.  The failure of Prohibition as a social engineering project was ignored.  Social engineers began to explore and pursue other societal ‘ills.’  Prison reform, poverty, social injustice, and education were all casis belli for these people.  It no longer was the criminal’s fault he stole from others, it became society’s fault.  Education was too strict and rigid, it needed progressivism.  Poverty, LBJ declared, must be eradicated with a war on it.  People living on the margins of society were being excluded and so it wasn’t accommodations that were needed but a complete change of society.


Anthropologists studied other cultures and declared western culture as oppressive.  Since other cultures had different attitudes and ideas, the West must change theirs to include these others.  Never mind that western culture had developed and adapted just like these other cultures within a societal context.  Western culture certainly didn’t have any less legitimacy because it had been technologically and materially successful. 


Sociologists studied other social systems.  Since there were other ways to build institutions, mores, and social structures the West must abandon the idea that theirs was an equal.  Social constructionism was an idea that burst from these studies.  Social constructionism argues that all meaning is created by a society and therefore can be changed without serious consequence.  The idea of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ were not real, concrete concepts and could therefore be ‘deconstructed’ and redefined to mean whatever you would want it to mean.  Western societal structures could be torn down and built up at a whim.  Little regard was made for the reasons for the structures.  If some members appeared to be excluded or marginalized, the entire institution must be destroyed and reconstituted. 


The first institution tackled was the criminal justice system.  In the 1950’s, progressive reformers hoped to understand those who broke laws so to better accommodate them.  Penitentiaries, places for outlaws to be penitent, needed to have a different focus.  Penitentiaries, these social engineers argued, must be for reforming the law-breaker to better live in society.  Re-education and training replaced labor and punishment.  During the 1960’s the Supreme Court jumped in and furthered the work with ponderous regulation of the criminal justice system using the guise of the U.S. Constitution.  Suddenly, in a pen stroke, the question of whether an outlaw could be executed became a long, trying ordeal.  In a document that had specifically spoke of capital punishment it was made to sound like it was forbidden.  The utterly flagrant misuse of the wording of that important document for capital punishment only led to more distortions and perversions of its meaning.  Words can be twisted, warped, and changed to mean anything, the Court allowed.  That encouraged the social engineers even more.  If the Court would allow it, surely the public would. 


Once again, whether reforming criminals was ‘knowable’ or ‘doable’ never gave these meddlers pause.  Do we ‘know’ how to fix people who insist on living outside the societal rules?  Is it possible to fix them?  If we ‘know’ how to fix society to accommodate them, is it even a possibility the bulk of society will succeed under these new accommodation?  These thoughts never seemed to slow the social engineers down.  But, eventually, society did. 


In the 1970’s, with full blown criminal justice reform and alteration of society to accommodate the outlaws, something strange happened.  Society paused, its members alarmed, and rejected these ‘progressives.’  Crime was escalating.  So-called marginalized members of society were taking undue advantage of this softer approach and demanding more than their share.  The American society shook its collective head and stopped the process in the political sphere.  Harder sentences with fewer privileges became the norm again.  Law-breakers were considered criminals and not misunderstood victims.  The American politic took notice of the nihilism growing within its midst and returned the laws to their former ends.  Criminal behavior was not going to be reformed or understood.  And so the social engineers howled, lamented, and generally threw a fit at the ‘injustice’ of it all.  But, society had moved on and approved more strict sentences for criminal behavior and dismissed the social justice reconstructionists.  Strangely enough, the failure of the criminal justice reform and other social engineering projects didn’t give the proponents pause.  Full speed ahead, social engineers continue to plan radical changes in American society with no more thought to the possible effects than they did with Prohibition and criminal justice.  This is why.

The fundamental general proposition of social engineer’s logic is that everything they can imagine is knowable and doable.  Since that syllogism is so general as to include everything, let’s explore is reductio absurdum to show how foolish this idea is.


Lead.  It is an element found abundantly in the earth’s crust.  For centuries it has been used for many things due to certain properties it has.  Romans used it for pipes, bowls, and other household items.  In fact, it has been used in everyday life up until the 1970’s.  Massachusetts actually had water pipes that weren’t replaced until the late senventies moving water from the Quabbin Reservoir to Boston and the environs.  Lead is a heavy metal, and so dangerous for humans and animals, but it is a very stable element.  It is even now used in batteries and electronics because of its chemical properties which make it indispensible as a chemical reactor.  But, again, lead is poisonous to humans, especially young children who are malnourished. 


Lead was added to paint as a pigment.  Lead oxides are very efficient coloring agents in paint and provide very good weatherproofing for wood and metal.  For a hundred years lead was a basic ingredient of paint used on the outside of buildings, ships, machinery, and anything that needed protection from the elements.  Lead actetate, another chemical compound, was used in automobile gasoline from the 1920’s to the 1970’s.  It acts in the fuel as a lubricant for the internal combustion engine increasing the motor’s efficiency.  Lead is in crystal, ceramic paints, and other products.  It is pervasive and widespread in our environment. 


Children who chew on this old paint or eat dirt contaminated from the lead acetate from gasoline can become poisoned with lead.  Humans have used and spread lead throughout their environment, most especially in densely populated, older civilized areas.  Children living in these areas are exposed to this lead on a daily basis.  It is not a good situation.  Every well-meaning person would agree this is a chronic problem that isn’t easily fixed.  In the past, as a society, we had accepted the risk lead posed to our children’s health to the benefits it gave us.  As technology has increased and economic prosperity has allowed for healthier and healthier protections, we decided lead was no longer worth the risk.  We banned use of lead in gasoline, paint, and other consumer products.  But, the vestiges of it last.


This a classic case of deciding what is doable and knowable and the importance of completing this analysis so as to make the correct decision and not waste precious resources on unknowable or undoable programs.  Obviously, we know lead in the environment is dangerous.  But, then we must discover whether it is knowable whether the right thing to do.  Is finding lead in the soil, walls, and equipment the right way to go.  Is there anything about the lead we don’t know would in fact be a benefit.  Can we know cleaning it up wouldn’t break the law of unforeseen consequences?  We can be pretty sure it would be the right thing to do because as far as our science show right now, there is no benefit to humans from lead. 


But the second question, is it doable, is a doubtful one.  Can we eliminate an element that has been spread across the earth?  Of course not.  It is an absurd proposition and yet there are some activists who call for just that.  For an anti-lead advocate to say we should work to remove all traces of lead that exists on the earth is madness.  But that is exactly the hubris from which these advocates operate.  They believe everything we can imagine is knowable and doable.  Does that mean we don’t eliminate and encapsulate the most dangerous sources of lead to children?  We must do what is necessary to protect children but the proposition that we completely eliminate all lead from anywhere a child could get at it is preposterous.  We cannot childproof the world, regardless of the what the heated rhetoricians try and say. 


Today, those progressives who argue everything is knowable and doable are attempting to hijack the economy with socializing health care, energy, and the financial system.  That is because they believe, deeply and abidingly, that they know what is best and can ‘fix’ everything.  It is from this philosophical viewpoint they argue.  If you argue they can’t possible understand all the problems with health care well enough to ‘fix’ it, they argue obstructionism.  If you rightly argue our alternative energy sources are not efficient or large enough yet, they argue you are a naysayer.  If we argue the financial system needs to work out its problems in the marketplace to eliminate the bad players, they argue you don’t care. 


We must argue these tasks do not pass the basic tests of knowable and doable.  If we don’t know the right answers, doing something, anything, will not fix the problem.  It hasn’t in the past, and it won’t now.  If a task isn’t doable due to size or scope, tinkering with it may make it worse.  We do need to do things differently.  We need to have national discussions about issues and consider these two important attributes before rushing to judgment.  We’ve already wasted too many resources, both human and fiscal, on ‘fixing’ things when we don’t even know the cause of the problem.  As a society, we must take this into consideration or we will end up with a second-rate health care system, rationing energy plan, massive inflation, and a bankrupt government.