Snarky Behavior

The Power to Change

January 13, 2008 · 6 Comments

With all of the attention being paid to the presidential elections, it is easy to be misled into thinking that big problems can be solved by big institutions.

The reality is that the majority of problems that we face as Americans (an as human beings) are the result of individual decisions played out in the aggregate.  As Kant observes, the fundamental flaw of human nature, from which all other flaws flow, is the tendency of the individual to make exceptions for himself to rules (or norms) he expects others to observe.

We suffer collectively because we recognize that the efforts of a single individual to reform is insignificant if the masses do not also follow suit.  Many times, we become so pessimistic of others that we lower our expectations of ourselves.  We then put our hopes in large, sweeping, institutional efforts.

The game theory behind these rationales justify a status quo that is unacceptable.  It absolves the individual from personal responsibility to do what he or she can to make the world better.

Part of the reason I blog (I think) is that I like to believe that individual actors who are not yet embedded into institutional systems of power still have the capacity to drive progressive change by pushing forward normative arguments.
Our “spheres of influence” may be small, but opinions and attitudes are shaped based on the ties of interpersonal relationships.  The stronger the bond, the more pervasive the idea.  When integrated within established social networks, good ideas can spread like wildfire.

My (re)commitment to this blog, and to myself, is to act as an agent of change.  I want to identify and discuss problems that I can play a part in resolving, in my own small way.  I want to be an optimist of myself, because in the end I’m the only person I have direct influence over.

For me, this is the nuanced definition of “change” that Obama represents.  His soaring rhetoric asks us to raise our expectations of ourselves.  He carries Kennedy’s “Ask Not” torch into the new century.

There are too many people waiting for him to fail, to not be able to deliver on what he promises.

But hope and inspiration in politics are much like consumer confidence in economics.  If the consumer believes there will be a recession, he will stop spending, and there will be a recession.  It is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

If the voter believes our country holds the capacity to do better, he will act better.  And we will DO better, collectively, as a result.

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6 responses so far ↓

  • destogate // January 13, 2008 at 5:15 am | Reply

    your article is very similar to the thoughts of the likes of David Suzuki and Thomas King. I highly recommend reading up about them or attending a lecture of theirs.

  • Rohit // January 14, 2008 at 3:15 pm | Reply

    While I do agree with the points you make, the danger of holding higher expectations is that the fall too is greater when they are not met. I’m not waiting for Obama to fail, but I’m also waiting for him to actually succeed. Too much hope in politics puts us on a path to self-deception just as much as too much cynicism puts us on a path to self-destruction.

  • Faraj // January 15, 2008 at 10:03 pm | Reply

    Rocky’s decision to change singlehandedly ended the Cold War and brought the Berlin Wall down. Individual decisions to affect change can bring enormous results.

  • Jon // January 16, 2008 at 12:47 pm | Reply

    A great point Faraj. If I can change, and you can change… we all can change!

  • destogate // January 17, 2008 at 5:02 am | Reply

    Come on, Jon. Can our individual adjustments make a difference? It’s not often that you see a ripple effect when it comes to stuff like this. In a world where synergy and collaboration is key, where does individual enterprise play a role, except in philosophical debates? Given, every individual brings their unique set of characteristics, traits and ideologies, but they come together as a homogenous group. What are your thoughts?

  • Jon // January 17, 2008 at 12:46 pm | Reply

    Destogate,
    Synergy is certainly important to coalesce individual efforts. But even then major changes and movements are the sum of the aggregate. And at the individual level you shouldn’t have to wait for inspired leadership to make a call for “synergy,” especially if you are skeptical of the outcome (and have the wherewithal within to inspire change of yourself).

    Speaking to Rohit’s point: it’s the decision between temepered optimism and depressive reality. I usually fall into the depressive reality camp (as do you), which is very cynical, risk averse, cautious, skeptical… conservative…. nasty, shortish and brute. This may let us say “I told you so” when movements inevitably fail, but it also leaves egg on our faces when movements sometimes succeed.

    Case in point: the “realists” of international relations predicted a structured Cold War with the USSR for much longer than it actually lasted. They had too much capacity, the elite was too powerful, for the system to collapse as rapidly as it did. Unfortunately the triumph of liberalism inspired the Neo-Conservative movement… ex hippies who wanted to believe in collective action but were suspicious of the welfare state, and instead believed wholeheartedly in free markets and enterprise.

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