Steven Garber eloquently calls us to reexamine the reality of doing justice in the world. Justice calls us to pursue the ideals of equity, progress, reconciliation, and hope—for all people—in a world marked by a stark departure from those ideals.
One could certainly debate how many good ideals animate the lifeblood of Washington, D.C., but the city is certainly filled with a lot of idealists. A friend of mine who holds a senior position at a think tank in Washington recently said to me, “I appreciate all the young people that come to work for us wanting to change the world, but I just need someone to help me make copies.” His wry remark betrays a reality that anyone in the U.S. capital city understands: this is a city more than any other in the nation to which Americans come hoping to realize their highest ideals.
It is also a city in which those hopes frequently crumble: “Syriana takes over,” in Garber’s words, and Christmas remains over the horizon. This is nothing new. Henry Adams’s 1880 novel, Democracy, portrays a city in the 1870s in which a young woman’s hopes of elevation and lasting achievement wither amidst the cynicism and double-gaming of the capital’s politicos. The 1870s and the 1970s look a lot alike, except for the horses, top hats. and frilly dresses. Too often, the longer one is tied into the machinations of Washington life, the more the ideals of justice begin to appear as preoccupations of the idealist: fictional, naïve hopes.
But must things be this way? I don’t think so. Is that because I believe in renewing a naïve faith in the highest ideals of justice? In a way, yes. But the real problem is that we have raised several generations that operate with a flawed understanding of public life. “Politics is the art of the possible, not the reign of the saints on earth,” Russell Kirk once said. A long line of political observers and philosophers from David Hume to Michael Oakeshott to Eric Voegelin have cautioned against a tendency, rather pronounced in modernity and post-modernity, to turn politics into a kind of religion. We have grown accustomed to expecting politics to establish ideals on earth—absolute equity, freedom from want, perfect leadership—that politics simply cannot achieve within its limited scope. This misunderstanding—politics as religion—has been pursued for at least the past two centuries, and it reached its culmination in the 20th century political ideologies that still shape our generation. In contrast, the best understanding of public life is that while justice is a right and worthy goal, politics is the art of proximate justice, not absolute justice.
As the art of the possible, politics can really only be understood in terms of proximate justice. To enter into politics with the hope of absolute justice is to begin with a failed premise. Any disillusionment that follows is deserved. As early as the mid-18th century, David Hume noted what he called a difference between “parties of interest” and “parties of principle”—that is, political factions organized around a legitimate geographic or business interest and others organized according to an abstract ideal. He saw the commitment to abstract principles in politics as a new phenomenon, and he saw it as eminently more dangerous to politics than factions based on interest.
Today, we prepare our next generation of leaders to see the entire, complex world through narrow lenses: “the environment,” “the free market,” “race,” “life,” “global poverty,” and on and on. We still have parties of interest, in Hume’s terms, but the parties of principle are powerful as never before. Many young idealists who trek to Washington with hopes of a meaningful career dive into the “art of the impossible”: trying to realize their ultimate ideals of justice. Disillusionment will certainly follow—as it must . . . by design.
Despite its flaws, the Anglo-American political experiment saw fit in the course of its evolution to design a political system in which stalemates are often the norm, power gets checked, and hopes are dashed. Disappointment in failed policy objectives is actually a sign that things are working as intended. Anyone who engages in politics as designed in our system must begin with proximate justice, and its incremental standard of progress, as a norm. Most idealists I know who understand politics this way are not disillusioned. Are they disappointed at times? Yes! Ready to throw away their ideals? No!
None of what I am saying should be construed to mean that we cannot pursue big ideals in politics. We can—and should—pursue the eradication of preventable diseases in developing nations, for example, especially when the failure to do so leads to unravelling and failed states. Is it easy to rally various political interests and factions around such a goal? Of course not. Nor should it be. Victory in achieving lofty goals will always involve certain trade-offs. Policy purity cannot be the goal. Legitimate interests will demand that funding be less than the right amount. Conditions imposed on recipient nations will often be inadequate to create the best incentives for reform. And the various interests and political leadership will outline their non-negotiable principles without which, in their view, the status quo is better than change. Engaging in this process can be exhausting and lead to days when it seems that hope is lost. But proximate justice requires that the idealist take one step closer to the goal—and be satisfied.
Politics as the art of proximate justice is rooted in the well known line by the prophet Micah: do what is just, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. Humility is the prerequisite for maintaining a lofty—and happy—idealism in the predictably frustrating world of politics.