Exploring the Eclipse of Equality

Of Blocks and Sidewalks: The prehistory of progressivism

In Uncategorized on February 24, 2010 at 9:16 am

This may be a suitable occasion to pick up on a conversation that we are currently having about the philosophical directions that should be followed for public policy. Not only is President Obama about to hold a fascinating health care summit to discuss what plans should be implemented to deal with the insurance gap, but also there have been fascinating riffs from Glenn Beck and John Stewart on political philosophies. Somehow the tragedy/comedy line from the 18th Brumaire comes to mind, but it isn’t really apt, although the Beck/Stewart version is likely to be more influential on public opinion. This got me thinking about how we ought to live and what makes life better for us.

One of the things that troubles me most about living in northern Virginia is the difficulty of enjoying a pedestrian culture. I don’t mean that I wish we are all more common than we currently are, but that we should walk. There is nothing novel in this observation and the various movements associated with Jane Jacobs’ “new urbanism” have made much progress of late. In order to walk though, you have to have sidewalks and it is often nice to have your city designed in such a way that grid-like patterns form blocks that can serve as unofficial social units.

I have thought about these ideas off and on for some time and on hearing the Beck/Stewart discussion, I began to think about how the fact that some places have sidewalks and others do not has something to do with political philosophy. What are these philosophies? I think of them as two simply conceived, but complexly articulated middle range narratives about political life. On the one hand you have classical liberalism and on the other you have progressive institutionalism. The first fits with liberal notions of individual freedom and limited state power, and the second fits with liberal notions of minimal interdependence and the public good.

As I recall my economics classes in high school, what always annoyed me were the materials that depicted cave men trading securities and the like. It always seemed so churlishly anachronistic. And yet, there was a theme there because many of these liberal ideas are quite august. For example have you read Pericles’ funeral oration recently? It sounds pretty contemporary and touches on our classical liberal themes.

“Our form of government does not enter into rivalry with the institutions of others. Our government does not copy our neighbors’, but is an example to them. It is true that we are called a democracy, for the administration is in the hands of the many and not of the few. But while there exists equal justice to all and alike in their private disputes, the claim of excellence is also recognized; and when a citizen is in any way distinguished, he is preferred to the public service, not as a matter of privilege, but as the reward of merit. Neither is poverty an obstacle, but a man may benefit his country whatever the obscurity of his condition. There is no exclusiveness in our public life, and in our private business we are not suspicious of one another, nor angry with our neighbor if he does what he likes; we do not put on sour looks at him which, though harmless, are not pleasant. While we are thus unconstrained in our private business, a spirit of reverence pervades our public acts; we are prevented from doing wrong by respect for the authorities and for the laws, having a particular regard to those which are ordained for the protection of the injured as well as those unwritten laws which bring upon the transgressor of them the reprobation of the general sentiment.”

As it turns out many of the ideas that we now associate with the various European enlightenments have long histories and have been re-discovered by many people in many cultures over the generations. Progressivism is another of these and Glenn beck is quite right to single it out as the enemy of his brand of conservatism–I think this perspicuity is what has made Beck such a star. Progressive ideas promote the notion of public good and government oversight. The idea is that all people may be born equal, but that over the course of their lives they develop skills and capabilities, i.e. merit, that gives them the warrant to make decisions for others as representatives of the whole, subject to recall. The key liberal idea in progressive thinking besides merit is transparency. The progressive idea is that life works best when it is lived in open for others to see. This facilitates rational judgment and keeps the powerful from hiding their infamy for too long. One of the ironies of classical liberalism is that its negative view of freedom and expansive notions of private property make for a great deal of opacity in public life and also lead, through inheritance, to the decay of merit as a dispositive principle.

This all leads me to the realization that sidewalks and grid designs in cities are progressive ideas. They lead to life lived in the open and also require a public authority to impose itself on the free designs of people, who if they had their own choice about it, would make beelines between points to save time. If this confuses you, just check out the idea of “Manhattan distance” to see why grids make for longer travel distances.

Grids also make for great public experiences. It is true that Baron Haussmann is often accused of destroying the liberty of the Parisians by bulldozing the organic street patterns of Old Paris, but his key innovation was the Boulevard and the straight line, sometimes referred to as the “tyranny of the straight line.” Boulevards are not in human scale and are intended primarily for ease of moving armies through the town, but the Manhattan grid is a democratic principle imposed on free citizens by their own volition (in many cases). The Boulevard anticipates some of the later ideas like the street hierarchy that would be models for places like Tyson’s corner.

Although I referred to Manhattan distance, a better example of the prehistory of progressivism can be found in the Philadephia grid pattern designed by Robert Penn in1683. There are ancient grid designs predating the Roman and Chinese examples and sidewalks were occasionally parts of those, but the Penn example shows how urban planning by the meritorious with transparency in mind has a long and interesting history as well.

As Stewart lectured to Beck in his piece, the public library is a progressive idea that dates back at least to Boston in 1854. The sidewalk and the gridded block are also progressive ideas that have older histories still. Perhaps we should be boring high schools students today also with cartoons of cavemen strolling past the local grocer, while chatting with friends.

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