John Stuart Mill in his classic tract on Utilitarianism sets forth the
classic liberal perspective on the relationship between social
institutions and social health.
A society that fails to build excellent social institutions will always
be chasing an endless train of social crisis, because a peoples’
capacity to develop and sustain social health depends very much on the
provision of an environment that is nurturing and sustaining.
When viewing the difficulty that Texas has in providing an excellent
and enriching environment of social institutions (how many special
sessions for school reform have ended in failure? how many excuses have
been made for why we cannot tax properly our incomes for this
purpose?)–is it any wonder that crisis prevention becomes the
conventional morality of public life?
How many of our most powerful and influential citizens spend their
public time on crisis prevention rather than confronting the work of
coaxing support for provision of broad institutional enrichment in
education, health care, art, etc.?
The public drift away from classic liberalism over the past generation
has one glaring consequence: it serves to keep a safe distance between
those who already have the means to fund institutions and those who
Anti-liberalism in this sense trends against the
democratic spirit. The next round of legislative action in education
appears poised to bring us more of the same: enhancing the ability of
the “haves” while paying little attention to the institutional needs of
the “have nots”.
Meanwhile, the folks who play this game from the top can continue to
chalk up morality points by putting their charity resources to use in
crisis intervention. And this is the lose-win formula of Texas politics
today. The more the people lose from public policy neglect, the more the public
moralists win from attending to the crises of the people.
Here’s how Mill put it:
It may be objected, that many who are capable of the higher pleasures,
occasionally, under the influence of temptation, postpone them to the
lower. But this is quite compatible with a full appreciation of the
intrinsic superiority of the higher. Men often, from infirmity of
character, make their election for the nearer good, though they know it
to be the less valuable; and this no less when the choice is between
two bodily pleasures, than when it is between bodily and mental. They
pursue sensual indulgences to the injury of health, though perfectly
aware that health is the greater good. It may be further objected, that
many who begin with youthful enthusiasm for everything noble, as they
advance in years sink into indolence and selfishness. But I do not
believe that those who undergo this very common change, voluntarily
choose the lower description of pleasures in preference to the higher.
I believe that before they devote themselves exclusively to the one,
they have already become incapable of the other. Capacity for the
nobler feelings is in most natures a very tender plant, easily killed,
not only by hostile influences, but by mere want of sustenance; and in
the majority of young persons it speedily dies away if the occupations
to which their position in life has devoted them, and the society into
which it has thrown them, are not favourable to keeping that higher
capacity in exercise. Men lose their high aspirations as they lose
their intellectual tastes, because they have not time or opportunity
for indulging them; and they addict themselves to inferior pleasures,
not because they deliberately prefer them, but because they are either
the only ones to which they have access, or the only ones which they
are any longer capable of enjoying. It may be questioned whether any
one who has remained equally susceptible to both classes of pleasures,
ever knowingly and calmly preferred the lower; though many, in all
ages, have broken down in an ineffectual attempt to combine both.